“I’m going to check out tonight,” Philip whispered to the male nurse, who compassionately attended to the patient’s needs, staying longer than his schedule permitted. But two days later Philip still clung to life.
The curtain shielded me from the corridor, not that there was much activity in the country hospital at midnight, but I appreciated the privacy. Dad was frightened. He wanted to die, and knew the time was near, but he was afraid to sleep just in case he did die. He hung on by a thread through all the pain and discomfort, not willing to give up. He knew his kidneys were shutting down. He stared at the wall in the dim light. Would dying hurt more than bloody living? What the hell’s going to happen? This just isn’t bloody fair. I knew my father well enough to guess his thoughts at this crucial hour.
“Help me Gaye, help me please,” his voice was only just audible, yet clear, even though his lips didn’t move. I sprayed his gaping mouth with water to moisten his swollen tongue. He flinched. “Gaye, look after Mum, please,” Dad struggled to get the words out, but then repeated himself.
“It’s OK Dad, we’ll make sure Mum is looked after,” I answered, gently stroking his shoulder. “I’ll stay here with you. Try to sleep,” I spoke loudly, but he strained to hear my words. He knew I was with him, that was important. He wasn’t alone. I lowered the bed so I didn’t have to stretch to touch him. “Gaye, are you there?” he asked in a frightened tone. The dying man needed reassurance. He couldn’t hear me, so I stood and bent over the naked figure on the bed and kissed his face. His skin was cold, but he refused to wear clothes, so I pulled the bed-sheet up to cover his chest. He pushed it back.
A familiar figure appeared from around the curtain and placed a cup of tea and plate of sandwiches on the table, wheeling it next to me. The nurse hugged my shoulders, and suggested I eat. I thanked her with a squeeze of the hand, aware that my tears would flow if I spoke at that moment. Nurses are special people.
Sleep eventually came to Dad. I silently prayed, and then went home to join my husband in bed. He held me as I recounted the evening. Morning came too quickly.
I touched my father’s arm, the colour of bruises, the texture of worn-out paper-thin leather. His prominent brow formed a shelf over dark, sunken eye-sockets, his eyes barely focusing. Even though he still carried excess weight, his cheek bones protruded unnaturally from an unfamiliar face of grey and a dingy shade of yellow. Impending death was not a pretty sight. He called for me in his ventriloquist whisper, mouth agape, lips not moving, yet still coherent. I assured my father I was with him, but he didn’t settle, still afraid to die. When night fell, Dad became distressed. I settled at his side, comforting him, reassuring him that he was not alone.
“Let me go, Gaye, let me go, please,” he pleaded. I hugged him and kissed his face. “Dad, you can go whenever you’re ready, it’s OK,” I answered my dying father, and rested my cheek on his cheek. Later, the night nurse again brought me tea and sandwiches, and again hugged my shoulders. When Dad seemed sound asleep, I prayed, said goodnight to the staff, and went home to bed. An hour later the phone call came. Dad hadn’t woken, had died peacefully in his sleep. I was overwhelmed with the wish that I had stayed with him another hour, so that I could have been there when he slipped away. But the Universe knows best, and I know it happened the way it was meant to.
**** **** ****
I had asked the difficult questions a couple of years ago. Dad believed that religion was a lot of hogwash, so I wasn’t surprised when he said he wanted the Salvos to bury him. “No church. Put me in the cemetery on the hill. No fuss,” Dad answered, always a man of very few words.
An oak casket. “As plain as possible, please” my sister and I said in unison. Native flowers, no hymns, nothing religious. 40 chairs would be ample. We agreed on every detail organising Dad’s funeral. We worked well together, re-establishing a closeness that had somehow slipped away over the years. A wonderful re-connection; an opportunity provided by Dad.
Dad arrived at his funeral earlier than we had expected. It was kind of nice having him watch over us as my sister and I decorated the hall with sprigs of cumquat from Mum’s garden. Comforting, yet sad. Sort of unreal. How could my father be dead? Was he really in that shiny coffin, wearing the pale blue shirt that Mum had made for him so many years ago? How had I reached this stage in my life? Where had the years gone? Poor Dad, his life had been long, but empty. Devoid of depth, 87 years and he missed the point of life. But what would I know? I was over 50 when I broke free from a similar warped sense of denial.
I chatted to Dad as I hid vases of dusty silk flowers in the Salvation Army hall cupboards, replacing them with potted native plants that would later be part of my garden. A different look, lovely, but not fancy. Masculine, but with a softness that was appropriate. The quiet time with Dad was healing.
I had put a lot of thought into writing the eulogy, and held my emotions intact until the last paragraph. I hoped that estranged family members might connect with my description and acceptance of my father and that which were commonly perceived as his failings.
We followed the hearse along the main street of the small country town. I sat in the back, finally able to cry. Old men stopped outside the grocery store, faced the funeral procession, hats held to their chest. Men I didn’t know, men Dad did not know. A tradition of yesteryear, a gesture of respect to a stranger no longer living, on his final earth-bound trip. To the graveyard.
Rest in peace, Dear Old Dad.