I will never forget the final months of my step-father’s life, nor the day I got the call summoning my presence because there was something urgent that he and my mother needed to tell me. I didn’t hesitate that day. Instead, I blew off the words of the project I’d been working on and drove the short distance to my folk’s place who live in the next town. All the while, my stomach churned and my nerves fluttered. Somehow, I knew before I arrived that it was cancer.
We hear about it all the time, people dying of cancer. In Australia, cancer is the leading cause of death. Still, nothing can prepare you when it reaches so close to home. I had lost a beloved uncle to cancer years before, but I wasn’t around to witness those horrendous end days. I got the call to come and say goodbye that final day, but by the time I had arrived at the hospital he was gone. I’d missed him by fifteen minutes and it tore me apart on the inside.
It was different with my dad. I was closer to him and it was me that he sought when he wanted to talk about death. For all the beliefs and spiritual teachings I had devoured and practiced over the years, I found myself struggling for the right words to say to him. What do you say when someone you love is dying? What words can you offer without sounding like a Taoist scroll banner?
What did I really know about death anyway?
My mother is the eternal optimist. She couldn’t or wouldn’t allow herself to accept that he was dying – right up until the day I told her that it was time to call my sister, my aunt and cousin to say their goodbyes. I remember the expression on her face when she heard me say those words; the shock as realization dawned. In those moments, the tables had turned. I had become her rock and her carer. There was no return. The fight was almost over, and I knew she had one foot in reality and the other in disbelief.
It was Friday afternoon, he was incoherent, dazed, and he couldn’t walk unassisted. Their home had been transformed into something that resembled a medical centre. He hadn’t wanted to spend his last days in a hospital, palliative care turned up every few hours to administer morphine and check in on him and my mother.
By that time, there were no more words to tell him except ones of love and surrender. Those last hours were like a living nightmare. Nobody tells you what its like at the end of a cancer battle. Nobody tells you how watching someone you love writhe and grasp onto the final threads of life kills you on the inside. Stubborn man. Right up till the end, and it was his love for my mother that kept him hanging on. He’d been so worried about her life after his death that he tried so hard to stay for her. For her. Even though he was no longer afraid of death.
I’d whispered in his ear and told him that she would be okay, that we would all look after her, that it was okay for him leave now. We all told him.
From Friday afternoon, he fought as hard as I’d ever seen anyone fight. He fought for love. I couldn’t stay with him and my mother the entire time, but my sister and her husband did. I tag-teamed with my husband because we have young children, but even from my home a few miles away, his presence was all around me.
February 18th, 2018 was a beautiful summer Sunday morning. I’d been with them till late the night before, and my husband wanted to be there too. So, I turned to my writing to fill in my mind as I impatiently waited for him to return so I could get back over there. I was working on Rebellion when the call came. He’d gone without me. He wasn’t supposed to leave without me there. But he did, and I didn’t get to hear him take another breath, or whisper in his ear one last time.
He left and the day was gloriously blue and hollow.
He left and my life has never been the same. It’s when the profound moments arrive that we realise life stops for nothing and no one. The same moments when we know our human mortality in its truest form and acknowledge how fleeting our life on this earth really is, and how final death seems when you can no longer pick up the phone and call your dad.
My mother had wanted to dress him before the funeral. She wanted nobody else but me to accompany her. I watched as she shaved him, spoke softly to him while stroking his face and kissing him as she placed his favourite beanie on his head and fixed his shirt. I stood in the corner of the room fidgeting and feeling numb. He didn’t seem real to me anymore – he was empty and frozen, and he was just gone. I couldn’t relate to him in that way because it was no longer him.
I’d felt the distinct difference of his soul no longer occupying his body. His body was just that; a soulless carcass that no longer represented my father. I knew I could get closer to him in other ways because I felt him all around us. Those feelings made me feel awkward during the dressing, I was relieved when it was over and I couldn’t get out of there quick enough.
A few years ago, my step-father and mother stayed with us for a few days. Those were the days when they’d lived interstate and travelled around Australia a lot of the time. One evening, we sat beneath the stars after dinner and chatted over a few drinks and music. That night he’d told me that a day will come in the future when he was dead and gone that I would remember that night with fond memories and a smile. That I would think of the wise words he so readily bestowed on me and remember him.
We didn’t always see things the same way. We disagreed quite often. He was a fatherless man that strived and struggled to provide the guidance of a father, and he was interested in my work and life as a writer. He’d written and published a book himself. Watching me do my writing thing made him proud.
Although I’d pushed his words aside that night, it turns out that he was right – I do recall that night with a smile in my heart, and not because of the guidance he tried to provide, but because of the love he had always shown me.
I have realized that even in death, he has continued to teach me. Nothing ever before has had such an impact on my life. In death, he has taught me that love is eternal; that it really does transcend time and space, and that the way we love in this lifetime matters.
There are a few people in this world who I love but are not currently in my life. People that I have shared time with, loved from the moment we met and haven’t stopped loving them since. If this is it – if this is all I have to let them know that I still care, then every one of these words matters as much as the love that exists within me.
If this moment is all we have, I’ll bubble it with precious love and push it out into the universe and hope they receive it because the way we love matters. And whether those people realize it or not, my love matters too.