The day before he died, I walked into his room at the nursing home and did a double take: I thought I was too late. He was lying on his side, skinny and pale, mouth open. Then I heard his breath rattle in his throat: he was alive.
I spoke with the Director at the nursing home and we prepared his room for the next, final, stage of his life. We set the table by his bed with a vase of flowers and a photo of us, his family, so that when he opened his eyes it was the first thing he saw. We plumped up his pillows and straightened his bed sheets to make him comfortable. I set the iPod to play some of his favourite music, Neil Diamond and Andrea Bocelli.
I sat next to his bed and took his hand. It was no longer callused from manual work and the muscles had shrivelled so the tendons stood out between the hollows. His hair still felt soft and fine, about the only part of him that hadn’t been affected by the disease. I placed my cheek against his and inhaled and tried to commit all of him to memory while I could so I’d never forget what he looked like and how he felt and smelled.
His brain had slowly decayed over eight years and much of the person he’d been had ebbed away long before his heart stopped beating. My grief had begun many months, even years, before as my once-strong, capable, intelligent father withered. To see him look at a knife and fork and not know what to do with them. To put a bib on him and spoon in pureed food. To see his muscles waste until he was unable to walk. To see him wearing a nappy. To watch him distressed—and he was distressed more often than he wasn’t—and hear him cry.
We’d had time to prepare for Dad’s death and when the news first came that he’d passed away, my initial feeling was relief. Relief for him, that he no longer had his daily struggle, and relief for us, that we no longer had to watch him struggling and deteriorating. I’ll admit there were times during that final year when I’d hoped his death wouldn’t be too far away and when he finally stopped breathing, in many ways it was just the physical remnants that died because so much of him had already gone.
Over the next few days, the relief dissipated and a sadness set in. It’s confronting to realise you’ll never see your father again. I told myself that most people lose their fathers: it’s the natural order of things, the way it should be. Intellectually, I knew that, but when Dad died, I felt it like a child. He was my dad, that strong man who’d always been in my life, and he was no longer. That took a bit of getting used to.
I’ve written a lot about him, both before and after his death. I felt very close to him at particular times during my life. He was a good listener and we shared many of the same passions—a love of music, the ocean, and the bush, in particular.
I’ve looked back over his life during this past year—gone through photos of his childhood and his early adulthood before I was born: slides of him with his mates at Bondi in Sydney; fishing up the Lakes, a string of trout behind him; sitting on the bonnet of his car, one of my toddler cousins on his knee; in his waders by a river, a fishing rod in his hand and his father next to him.
And in all the photos he’s smiling.
Here’s to you, Dad. You taught me a lot while you were here and one year after your death I’m still trying to learn from you. You knew what was important. I will never forget you.