Friday, 14 September 2012

Thoughts about Dad

I wrote this sitting beside my Dad in the hospital one morning. He was barely conscious of my presence and I occupied myself reading, listening to my mp3 player, and writing the following:

As I write this I am sitting beside my father as he sleeps in his hospital bed in the hospice ward. He doesn’t have much longer to live. His level of discomfort has now reached the point that they are gently sedating him and his lucid moments are almost over. He says he feels wonderful and floaty. I am glad he is not suffering. In just a week or two he has gone from being able to walk to the lounge to watch TV to not being able to roll over in bed. He doesn’t even have the energy to read a book. It has been a very swift decline.

I am struck by the similarity between the end of life and the beginning of it. Bathing the body by applying moisturiser and then wiping it off, as I did with my newborn babies. A diet of liquid and mush. Nappies. Having very little control of gross and fine motor skills. Struggling to enunciate. Being pushed around in a wheeled chair. The way I keep checking that dad is breathing, like I did with my babies (and still sometimes do when they seem to be too asleep!).

The difference of course is that there is a perfectly aware adult mind stuck inside this helpless body, that there is pain, and that unlike a baby who thrives and gets stronger day by day my dad is getting weaker by the minute.

Dad keeps apologising to me because his demise is happening during my visit. In fact, I don’t mind – I would rather be here now keeping him company and helping my stepmom than to be on the other side of the world hearing about it. My husband, who has lost both his parents already and who missed attending both their deaths by mere hours, completely understands. I am probably going to have to delay my flight home, and my husband will have to take more time off work to look after the kids, but he is being extremely gracious about it.

The level of care required to make dad comfortable is amazing. Oxygen, special air mattress to prevent bedsores, high nutrient drinks, painkillers, sedation, being turned from side to side every few hours, catheter and nappies. I catch myself wondering how horrible it must have been to die in the olden days (or in 3rd world countries right now I suppose). Pain, breathlessness, bedsores, starvation, soiling oneself- the mind boggles. I am so glad we have access to modern medicine and that dad’s Navy medical plan covers all this.

Until just a few days ago Dad was still at home. My stepmom nursed him and did a brilliant job. In her youth she trained as a nurse, but I think any loving wife would have done the same.

Dad had a Project that he really wanted done, which was to gather all the information and photos he has of our ancestors, and to scan them to share with the family. My job over the past week has been to sift through heaps of paper from the past 40 years looking for nuggets of history. During my search Dad realised that I was also gathering anything to do with his life, from high school certificates to Naval commendations, to preserve for myself and my descendants. Someday my children and grandchildren may want to know more about my Dad, in the way I wish there was more info about my grandad. I think Dad was chuffed to know that I value his life history too.

We pretty much completed our Project. I’d emptied the cupboard which had been packed with paperwork, and Dad and I had looked at and discussed all the papers and photos I’d found. On the day we rushed to hospital I hadn’t yet scanned the last pile of stuff and there was a heap of old papers that Dad might have liked to have looked through, but really we were finished. I’ve packed a bundle of old photos to take home with me for scanning, so I shall finalise the Project later.

Whenever Dad has a lucid moment he asks me if we finished the Project and I tell him that we have. It must be worrying him that we might not have ticked that box. Once Dad learned his cancer was terminal he made a Bucket List of things he wanted to do before he was gone. I’d always thought of a Bucket List as a grand affair – hot air balloons and Paris and rides on a space rocket – but I guess you have to tailor these things to reality. Dad has been so ill this year that his list was far more prosaic: give the boat to a friend, buy my stepmom a new car, and dig out the family history. I am glad I was able to help him tick the last item off his Bucket List. I’m also glad I managed to get my hands on the family history, as my children are Dad’s only blood descendants.


When I was little Dad smelled of coffee and cigarettes or pipe tobacco. He has always been very physically affectionate, happy to hold hands or have me sit in his lap or give big hugs. Even as a grown woman I’d hold hands with Dad walking down the street. I wonder if some people thought he had a very young wife!

My parents would often sit quietly in their respective armchairs reading books, drinking coffee and smoking. My favourite spot was in the corner of the room behind Mom’s chair. It was lit by her floorlamp, and I would curl up on the carpet with an Asterix graphic novel. They’d play classical LPs on the record player, and if I was lucky they’d let me turn the record over and ever so carefully drop the needle onto it again.

Once or twice a week we would need to stir our swimming pool so that all the debris would collect in the middle, ready for Mom to suck it out with the pool cleaner. I’d be doing my best, up to my neck in the water. Dad would lap me a few times and suddenly I’d be swept into his slipstream, bobbing along behind him in delight as he created a whirlpool.

In the pool Dad would swim underwater with me clinging to his shoulders until I couldn’t hold my breath any longer and would have to let go and surface. He would also submerge, get me to stand on his shoulders, then stand up and throw me into a dive from well above the water. I remember dad and his brothers all pretending to hold their wives underwater while the kids all went mental at the edge. Dad was into paddlesurfing and practiced Eskimo rolls in the pool. I don’t remember him ever succeeding!

We spent a great deal of time at the beach. Dad was a surfer and a paddlesurfer. Mom and I would bodyboard, and I’d build sandcastles and investigate rockpools and collect seasnails with Kelly. I’m surprised I never learned to surf. Maybe if we hadn’t moved inland when I was 12 I would have.

Dad was always working with wood. I loved the smell and texture of sawdust. Dad never taught me any carpentry, but I have a fair understanding of nails and woodglue picked up while helping him by holding things. Holding things waiting for glue to dry is very boring!

After my parents divorced Dad got himself a guitar and keyboard. Unfortunately he is literally tone deaf! When I’d visit I had to tune the guitar.

Dad taught me to drive. For a while anyway! I decided I’d rather not know how to drive than be taught by Dad… a year later he paid for lessons and I passed first time. I imagine that is why Mom taught me to ride a bicycle!

My Dad died later the same day.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

wow! Beautiful your Dad would have been proud of this xx