|Everything and Nothing|
It’s the 15th of January 2014 and my father has been dead a year.
It’s jarring to say the least, just writing that first line.
The below post is something I wrote last year March, when “things” were still relatively fresh. Then again, is the death of a parent ever not fresh? I have tinkered with it here and there over this last year, but for the most part, what is written below is as personal and as raw as I have ever been.
(Disclaimer: Out of respect, I have edited and left out some personal incidents that happened on the day.)
Where do I start?
How does one write about the passing of such a pinnacle person in their life?
How do I unravel myself to show what I truly feel? What I honestly think about everything that has happened in the last 2 months?
I’ll start with the truth.
My father drank. Not like your father, or your father. He drank because he needed to feel drunk. I always questioned why he drank, why he’d drink bottle after bottle, like there was no bottom in sight. I just never questioned him.
Till the very last moment he breathed, I don’t think he ever really believed that he had a problem. Sometimes the most prominent of demons don’t lie underneath your bed or in your cupboard; they lie inside of you, waiting to be let out – or, in my father’s case, waiting to be fed.
I’m not here to tell you what my father was like. You’re more than welcome to ask me personally, any time you wish. What I am here to tell you is what the day was like when the pain stopped.
I was at work, you know, just keeping the economy going. Stricken with grief and anxiety and every emotion under the sun at that point. I was doing my best to keep a brave face in front of my work colleagues who could all see the Dave they knew drain from my face with every interaction.
I picked up the phone. Not more than a few minutes before midday. It was my mother. Panicked and holding back the terror of what she was witnessing. “There’s something wrong with Dad. You need to come here now.”
“Thankfully”, management knew about my ailing father, and as soon as I mentioned I had to leave, I was ushered from the building quietly with secret hugs and affection, which to this day I could not be more grateful for.
I rushed over to where my mother and father had set up their “temporary” Johannesburg residence in Rivonia. I had been there many times since their return to Joburg. Their recent nomadic lifestyle is a complicated story and one I will not tell here. I entered the apartment, my mother met me at the door and ushered me into the bedroom where my father sat… on the bed, gasping for air. I had no words and like my father, no breath in me.
He had been ill. Terribly ill. Spending 10 days in ICU the previous October, with acidotic levels that were enough to kill a horse, he had ailed to what can only be described as a bloated, pale Auschwitz victim. I know how that must sound, but it’s the best I can do right now.
He just sat there, eyes yellow and confused, like he didn’t know me. “We have to take him to the hospital”, I said. My mother was frozen, not knowing what to do. “We have to take him now!” “Again?” my mother whimpered. “Fine. To the specialist. That Chinese guy, or whatever. That guy that told you he should get a transplant. Now!” My mother dressed him, painstakingly slow. He was immovable. Like a child. There were moments of lucidity, when he pepped up and looked at me like he knew me. Clothed as best as we could, we ushered him from the 3rd story apartment to the parking lot.
Not sure how we, he, us were going to make it down the stairs, I stood in front of him, placed his hands on my shoulders like some kind of frail Congo-line. Sometimes I can still feel his hands on my shoulders. Boney and cold. This was the first time my father had touched me, maybe unbeknown to him, lovingly in years. The stairs felt like a descent from Everest. Slow. Single steps. Stops for rests and an adjustment of his pants.
I drove slowly – with purpose, but slowly – to the Donald Gordon Institute to see the specialist my father had seen a month before. To this day, I don’t know why it took him or us so long to approach someone specialized in the medical treatment of alcoholism.
We waited. I was on the edge of throwing the reception area couch through the window when the apathetic receptionist told us we could go through to see the doctor. My father wheezed as I helped him up and into the doctor’s room. Talks about severity and consequences went over my head. This was the first time I had ever met this man and he basically told me that without a transplant my father would be dead. I tried my best to decide whether there would be any difference, given how he was sitting there, slumped in his chair, as though his spinal muscles had just given up all together.
“He needs to be admitted to ICU, right now,” the doctor ordered. I thought “here we go again”. Another induced coma. Another bout with loud and obnoxious ICU staff. Another round of recovery. I never considered that he would not come home.
At this stage, my father was throwing up what can only be describes as molasses. A thick, dark, sticky substance which I later found out was digested blood. It made my stomach turn. It still does. Rushed over to the ICU, we were allowed to come in. They had already hooked him up to more machines than I could count. It looked like something out of a movie, but I was used to it by then, after seeing him in ICU the year before. He perked up, looked like he had regained some colour in his body. His cheeks were flushed and he was rather lucid for someone “apparently” on their deathbed. No truer words had been thought that day.
We were allowed in and then huddled out. Allowed in and huddled out. This carried on for most of the afternoon. Conversations with staff that seemed like well wishes rather than actual medical information.
I had no idea what to do. I wanted to reach out. To tweet. Call. SMS. Something. I wanted support but the only thing I could think about was my brother. He wasn’t here. Still in Cape Town, my brother had absolutely no idea what was going on, which – to be honest – was how my mother and I liked to keep it. “Better he doesn’t know, okay?” she’d always say to me. I wished my best friend were here. I wish anyone, anyone who was not the ICU staff, anyone who was not my mother’s friend – who, unfortunately had lost her husband a few years before – was here. It was like the Lonely Hearts Club in that waiting room.
A couple, close friends of the family, arrived. George and Marcella. Both rocks when my father was in ICU previously. They looked distraught, more so than my mother and I. My mother wept. Face as red as a tomato. She is a proud woman. But to see those tears, for as long as I did, made me swallow more back-of-the-throat-frogs than I would’ve liked. I did my best to remain stoic as they asked question after question. I gave them as much as I could. They comforted my mother, probably more than she liked. I know she doesn’t like being touched when her guard is up. We have that in common.
We were allowed back in to see him. The bastard is awake! I lovingly-snap at myself mentally. I can’t believe my eyes, there he is. Lying there like he’s on a beach in Bali.
I looked at all the machines. The pipes, the incessant beeping of his machine, louder than those around us in the ICU ward. There were other families there too. Grief-stricken, crying, chatting. I looked around, using my years of medical professionalism, made – I think now how terrible this sounds – sweeping judgment calls on those lying in the vicinity of my father. She’ll make it. He’ll make it. He’ll make it. Oooh… not sure about him, I thought to myself. My inner dialogue dealing with the trauma with gallows humour. I need to shut up. I looked back at my father. He’ll make it.
By his bedside, we were informed that he had to be taken in for an Esophagogastroduodenoscopy or EGD – yah, tell me about it. If you can pronounce it, then good for you. Basically they wanted to have a look in his stomach to see where the blood was coming from. Possibly an ulcer, or three or five, they said. “We just need to deal with one thing at a time”, like something out of an episode of Grey’s. I was on autopilot. I just stood there, arms folded, and looked back at the doctors who were assessing my old man.
They were young. Brilliant, I guessed. Jewish, I thought. Definitely Jewish. Jewish doctors are good, I thought to myself. Like something you’d say about a foreign delicacy while travelling in another country. “It’s Italian. All Italian tiles are good.” This is how the mind works in these situations.
Things were happening around me, around us, like they were prepping him for surgery. I remained unmoved. I was by his shaky side, feeding him ice blocks. Ice blocks of all things. The vitamins they were giving him had awoken his brain and body, but his lips were so dry. So, so dry. And chapped. They looked terrible. He wasn’t allowed anything to drink and, much to my dismay and argument, the nurses and doctors had let him whither up like a burnt stick. I told them there must be something we could give him, just to wet his lips. Ice. I never thought I’d ever be feeding my father. Let alone ice. He was too proud. Too proud to be fed.
Miniscule block after block, I let him slurp it off the plastic spoon they gave me. He looked wide-eyed. Like he had been given an electric shock. I immediately knew it was from the meds. They obviously had to build up his strength before taking him into surgery.
“My tummy’s sore.” he pained at me.
“I know, Dad. They’re going to be taking you in to have it checked out. It’ll be okay.”
“Soooore.” He mouthed.
I didn’t know it at the time, but these were the last words I’d ever hear from my father.
To this day, I still don’t know what or how I feel about that. But they are ingrained, etched, burnt into my mind for all of eternity.
They wheeled him off. We waited. And waited. Before they carted off my father, they “prepared us”, for what seemed to be the worst. Reassuring us that, “It’s routine, relatively non-evasive”. I breathed a sigh of relief. They started up again, “We have to put him under. For the sake of stability. He has to go under in order for us to have a proper look.” That’s okay, I thought. Routine scope. Anaesthesia. No problem. The guy will sleep it off and wake up back in ICU and he’ll be okay.
I was wrong.
He never woke up.
He stayed, asleep, until they could no longer keep him alive.
On life-support after the “routine scan”, my father lay there, motionless. Eyes taped shut and the only thing that gave any sort of inkling that there was life were the monitors around his bed.
The most senior of ICU staff, a young woman, escorted us into a private room. My mother first, then broke the news to myself and Marcela, George and my mother’s friend. He was not going to wake up.
You know the feeling when your heart sinks. When it hits rock bottom. When there are no more levels to which it can be lowered. There. It was there. At the bottomless pit of despair and sadness, that’s where my heart lay. I felt deflated. Helpless. Hopeless. Empty.
My eyes met my mother’s. I grabbed her. Held her. My heart. Breaking over and over again as she wept into my chest. I still feel a lip tremor as I write this.
It’s a hard thing for a son to see their mother cry. Not cry, but weep. Sob, even. I didn’t know what to do. I just held her. We decided that it was time to call my brother. I couldn’t do it. In her brave fashion, my mother whipped out her phone and made the call. He was on the next flight in. Everything had happened so quickly. Literally in a space of 2 hours, my father went from descending a staircase to flat on his back, supported by machines. It all seemed so surreal.
We started to make calls. Close friends and quasi-family – none of our real family lived in Joburg – marking the spread of people, those who had known my father in his prime. Successful. Giving. Loud. Obnoxious. An asshole. But an honest man. I told no one. I could barely speak, except to say “thank you for coming” and “would you like another coffee?”. All I wanted was a smoke. A cigarette of all things. And a drink. Ironically.
Close friends came and went. My mother and I ushered them upstairs to his bedside to pay their last respects. To cry over his bed and to hold my hand. I hated it. I didn’t want to be touched. I hated every embrace. I felt like the Ferryman, carting the mourners back and forth, from lobby to bedside. Coffee shop to car. I was falling apart. Key friends and family setting off splutters of quick sobs as I hugged them.
My brother was a rock. Stoic. More than I throughout the rest of the day when he arrived. I don’t know how he did it. Shock, perhaps? I didn’t have the energy to ask him.
Between the admin of lawyers and the hospital, the rest of the afternoon was a blur. I can’t account for many of the hours during the evening, until we could no longer stay at the hospital. We left. Told he would be stabilized throughout the night and we could return the next morning, as early as need be. I drove. Numb and machine-like.
The three of us arrived back at the flat. Broken. Quiet. Weepy. We made tea and sat on the couches all looking in opposite directions. My brother, like stone. My mother, like water. And me… I had no idea what I was. “Soooore”.
The cellphone on the cheap glass table began to ring. It was my mother’s. I picked it up and handed it to my mother.
She put down the phone. Looked at me and said;
She fell into me like you’d imagine and tree does when chopped at its base. Slowly. Heavily. Without a chance of survival. She cried so hard it’s making me cry right now.
(Some how, everything failed. One organ after the other. Miserably. Unexpectedly. Tragically.)
We were invited back to the hospital to say goodbye. Back into the car and instead of not speaking, we spoke about him. We laughed and chuckled and cried and strangely reminisced about how my father would have thought this was all so ridiculous.
The hospital felt cold. Colder than before. The security guards knew us by now, ushered through the lift and into the ward. They had prepped him. His face, wrapped in a towel, like a headpiece of sorts. Shaved, clean, Vaseline on his lips. He looked… calm.
And then it hit me, the pain was gone.
He was gone.
My father was gone.
I seem to have left it off there, not sure why, as there was more to say. Especially upon the return home, just the three of us and especially since revisiting this piece. I think it might have been all I had at the time. Reading through it all has been an emotional journey in itself. Reliving some of those feelings has brought about new respect for the day, my mother, the friends and family who were there on the day to support us.
If any of you are reading this, thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
To all those who have poured out their hearts to my family and I this year, thank you.
To the one who lent me their wordsmithian-skills for this piece, thank you and always.
I think what I’ve realized today is that, it’s better – no – the only way to truly appreciate something is to grab it, lose yourself in it, let it devour you and allow it to change you for the better.
This year has easily been one of the toughest I have ever lived. Right now, I feel good. Life is good and I’m grateful to have had a man in my life to teach me to value life – both while living and in death.
We miss you, Dad.