When you’re alone, or at least alone with your thoughts, do you think of what you were doing at that time last year? I do. All the time. And I always have a song attached to that memory. It’s not something I consciously do. The song’s usually a soundtrack to my life at the current time and the memory builds itself around the song.
When I remember back to February 2010, I can hear Taking Back Sunday in my head while thinking of my friends and I driving to Yarrawonga for a week away.
When I think back to June 2005, I can hear Gary Jules’ Mad World and remember our high school play of Peter Pan.
Tonight, I sit in front of my laptop, pouring over a Buddhism essay, though not getting very far. I look up at my digital clock resting upon my shelves and it reads ’00:11′ on May 27th 2011. My heart plummets. I’ve been anticipating this date for a while. I don’t have a soundtrack or song for May 27th 2010. When I think back to this time last year, I just hear static. Buzzing static-y static.
It was the day my Dad was diagnosed with cancer.
Even on that day when we found out, Mum, Dad, David and I were still so full of hope. Hope that we would be one of those miracle stories that you’d read about in Women’s Weekly.
We all sat together and had a few drinks that afternoon. It was one of the last times we were all relatively happy. Anytime someone said they were scared, the liquid courage in the other three would kick in and kick the fear out of the person. After a lengthy five minutes of silence, Dad said,
“I’m going to beat this.”
I walked into the bedroom. I could hear music faintly playing; one of the mix CDs Dad had made, no doubt. He’d made them months earlier, when he had the energy to sit at the computer for more than ten minutes.
He, Mum, and I would sit in the bedroom for hours, listening to Roy Orbison, The Eagles and Simon and Garfunkle. The first ten minutes would be spent in tears at the new reality created for us. Dad would lean his bony back against a pillow, sit up and cry as the day caught up with him. Simple tasks he once took for granted now required naps in between. Even collecting the mail from our mail box ten feet from our front door was a task he had to mentally and physically prepare for. As he wept, Mum would prepare his cocktail of medication and hand it to him with such optimism.
“Come on, Rick. You’ll feel better when you take these,” she’d instruct. We were all well aware that these tablets wouldn’t have a long term effect. We were made very clear that the term ‘terminal cancer’ doesn’t affiliate with long term wellness. No, these tablets would make him feel better for five or six hours, when he’d need another dosage.
Mum and Dad would sit up in bed every night, sharing an orange or some ice cream. I’d sit on the floor at the end of their bed for an hour or two, talking about anything – Uni, work, friends, death, Mum’s work, life, my brother’s upcoming wedding and death again. I’d eventually leave under the pretence of doing homework, go to my room and cry.
My Mum, my Brother, my Grandmother, my Polish Pa’s Greek Girlfriend and two Aunties were crowding around the large bed my now meek Father was laying upon. It was too crowded. We could have been sitting in an empty warehouse and there would still be too many people in there. As I walked in, they looked up at me with their sympathetic looks. Someone asked how I was. What a stupid question, right? What did they think I would answer with?
Oh, I’m just peachy. I rushed home from work after receiving a phone call that today would be the day my Dad was going to die. Peachy-fucking-keen.
“Fine.” I mumbled as I kneeled down on the floor next to the head of the bed. I ignored their looks. I knew they were pitying me. I didn’t want it. I didn’t want them there. This was a private moment. People aren’t allowed to sit in when a pregnant woman is giving birth. Death should be no different.
I looked at Mum, who was sitting up on the bed next to Dad, holding his hand. Her hair was dishevelled and her eyes were puffy. This look was not unfamiliar to me. This is a look my family and I had shared over the past 6 months and would undoubtedly share for many more months to come.
My eyes focused on my Dad. He eyes were glassy and he looked so far away, but still so present. His face was gaunt; cheeks hollow and complexion ghostly. His mouth was slightly open – he didn’t even have the strength to hold it shut.
“Hi Dad,” I said, forcing my voice to have a cheerful inflection. It sounded more like a mid-pubescent boy. I was almost scared for what his reaction would be. Would he recognise me? Was he so far gone that he didn’t even know who I was?
He pushed a groan out of his mouth; a mere morsel of communication. It was the weirdest thing, though. Most people would have been so upset that he wasn’t able to form any words together and would have taken that very groan as a horrible sign. But I knew better. I could hear the recognition. I could hear him saying hello back to me.
It was so bittersweet. I valued more than anything that he could recognise me, but it was plaguing me like the very cancer infecting my Dad that today was the last day I would know Dad.
I’m not emotionally equipped to handle dire situations like these. My knee-jerk reaction is to make a joke, in hopes of emitting laughter from people, rather than tears. I guess I got that from him. His jokes were always perfectly tailored to every imaginable situation. I would often liken his mind to a filing cabinet; as soon as someone would say something, his eyes would twinkle and you could see him mentally opening the cabinet and flicking through the countless manilla folders to whip out the perfect one-liner for the occasion. These impeccably timed one-liners were always met with bellows of laughter – if not from everyone else in the room, then just him. Which, in turn, would make everyone else laugh. His joviality just radiated from him and infected everyone surrounding him. That’s what part of him died first; his humourous nature. As though it were a thief in the night; there one night, gone by morning, his jokes, one liners and laughter were stolen.
He laid there, mouth hanging open, gaunt as ever. His eyes were empty, but I knew he recognised me. As glazed and barren as his green eyes were, they were the only medium of communication that day. He couldn’t speak nor move, but when anyone dared say anything, his eyes would follow their voice. It was somewhat comforting to know that as far gone as he was, he could still hear me and understand me.
As a mere force of habit, I reached my own hand out to hold his and the second my hand touched his, I knew this was it. The thing I remember most is how cold he was. Never, even on the coldest of days, have I touched something or someone so icy. Breathing was more of a formality; he couldn’t speak, he couldn’t move and could barely even blink.
I remember as I held his hand, recalling a time when I was 12, and we all went to Shepparton to work with him and had stayed overnight in a tiny motel room. The next day, we didn’t need to leave until 6pm. It was hot that day; sticky, muggy and smelly. The motel room wasn’t air-conditioned and it was too hot to do anything outside. We took advantage of the deserted motel pool. It was one of the best afternoons we’d had. He would crouch down as either David or myself would climb onto his shoulders, and like a catapult, he jerked up and projected us into the air before plummeting into the water. We did that all afternoon. If his shoulders were sore, he didn’t complain about it. He just kept crouching down for David or me to climb onto.
Looking at him on this day, it was hard to imagine that this person lying helplessly could have supported even a baby on his shoulders, let alone two teenagers all afternoon. His frame was so frail. Where once were muscles were just bones. Where once was body fat was loose skin. He had depleted so quickly, which is what made it so hard to believe he had ever been so strong.
The last ten minutes were haunting. By that point, most of our extended family was there. Phone calls had been made to inform everyone that ‘this is it’. Unfortunately, it’s a phone call that so many people had been anticipating.
We’d closed the door so that only Mum, David, his fiance Stacey and I were in the room with Dad. The last few hours were intense, but yet very peaceful. It had been just us five for the last 6 months. People would come to visit Dad and see how he was, offer some optimistic words which we would all smile and nod upon hearing, but completely disregard. Optimistic words were about as useful as a monkey with symbols. Just noise.
Roy Orbisons’ A Black and White Night was playing. I’m not sure what song was playing when it happened. The whole album is now impossible for me to listen to.
We were all sitting around him; David and I were sitting at his right, Mum was laying on his left with her arms wrapped around his small body. Stacey was sitting at the foot of the bed, unsure of whether she was too close or too far for comfort.
I’m by no means a medical guru. I’ve never taken to medical shows like All Saints or ER, so I really had no idea what to expect. Part of me thought he would fall into an epileptic-like fit, foaming at the mouth and pulsating beyond control until he just stopped.
But instead of the horrific scene I had envisioned, he laid there, on his side, as he had for so many nights in the last six months. His breathing had changed. While it had been stilted all weekend, this breathing pattern was different. It sounded like death.
Like I said, I’m no doctor. Hell, I couldn’t even pass as a medical student. But I knew when he was gone. I knew when he had taken that last breath. He inhaled as much as he could given the meek state he was in, but he didn’t exhale.
I waited a second. No exhale.
I waited two seconds. No exhale.
I waited five seconds.
Without even realising it was happening, tears were streaming down my face. I reached for his wrist. His skin was so clammy and cold. But more importantly, his pulse was so non-existent. Where used to be pulsations of life coursing through his body was death sitting there, having taken over my Dads’ once strong body.
“My Rick…no, come back, Rick,” my Mum wailed into his limp shoulders. Her body had moulded around his, not wanting to let go. David, Stacey and I were all leaning over to rub Mum’s arm or leg in consolation, but also holding onto Dad. I don’t think any of us wanted to let him go. Sure, his breath was gone, but it didn’t mean that we had to let the rest of him go.
Mums’ words still haunt me. They were so sad, so desperate and in that moment, they were so real.
He was gone.
We had six months of preparing for this exact moment. Six months of conversations about cancer and death and pain. No matter how much we talked about it or tried to prepare for it, it still broke my heart into tens of thousands of pieces.
Lying in front of me was the man who was the King of the ‘pull my finger’ gags. The master of making road rage sound like a comedy routine. The artist of crude, but hilarious jokes.
Lying in front on me was my Dad.
And he was gone.