My walk to the lake the next morning was both welcomed and tiring. I hadn’t slept so well the night before, and I didn’t really didn’t know why. I lay awake, listening to Dad breathing, and when his snoring stopped, I started to worry.
Having never had children of my own, I could only imagine that new parents went through similar situations with their newborns. Here I was, tending to things at the other end of the spectrum. How precious breathing really is, especially in a loved one.
Back at the wooden bench beside the lake, I wasn’t so fascinated by the rising sun this morning. Another birthday had come and gone, and the whole ho-hum affair left me with a deep-seeded desire to one day have a full-on birthday party and bring the house down.
Dad’s health had now got to the stage whereby every hour was a bonus, let alone the days.
My mother had found it increasingly difficult to visit and to see her husband deteriorating before her very eyes.
Other families visited loved ones in the Palliative Care ward at the end of their respective journeys. It was only a matter of time before Bed 25 would have a new candidate rolled in.
I started to think more about what I was going to do with my life post this experience. Would I go return overseas or would I stay in Australia and try and make something happen here?
I was torn inside. The lack of connection to anything and anyone here had left me feeling tired and alone.
Alone in the sense that my past twenty-five years of living and being a global citizen had, to a large degree, made me nomadic by nature and global by existence. I didn’t do well being in one place for long, especially in a country with a small population and so far, far away from the happenings I was used to.
These experiences were a main factor behind the disconnect I had with my family. The tyranny of distance had wedged an unspeakable barrier between what we knew, how we shared and ultimately what we liked.
Since my return, I saw how the passing of years had turned my parents into predictable souls, with daily agendas that were pretty much set in stone. I, on the other hand, was still willing to explore and conquer whatever it was that I set my mind too. I tried the best I could to allow the universe to do its thing; after all, that’s why I was here, right?
This morning, I wasn’t alone at the lake. I looked across to the farthest shore and noticed an elderly woman sitting on a bench opposite. She had a bottle and was sipping something from it, perhaps coffee, I couldn’t be sure. She didn’t look over at me, her eyes busy on the lake’s surface. I tried to guess what she was thinking and whether she was plotting something or trying to understand her next life move like me.
I always thought it would be nice to go up to a random soul and just start a conversation about whatever it was they were thinking about. But not today.
As with most mornings when I went to the lake, the hint of an early breeze brought with it the heat from the land. Most of my time in the last few weeks had been spent inside an air-conditioned room as the summer days belted down on the soul's outside.
As a skin cancer victim, I was weary in allowing the hot ultra-light rays of the deadly sun to hit my skin for too long. I had become used to wearing long sleeve shirts and clothes that protected me from the sun’s glaring rays.
It was time to head back to the hospital. Me time was over, and it was back to trying to take care of and talk to Dad again. As I got up to walk away from the bench, I glanced across the lake to find the lady had left. I wondered for a second if her time at the lake had served its purpose.
Our alone time is so vital to our wellbeing, our strength and resilience. It is a chance to recharge our bodies.
It was a slow walk back to the hospital, almost as if I was trying to delay my arrival. I’m not sure why but in hindsight, it could be the very thought of the routine I was starting to dread that was dragging me down.
There is no pretty way to put this. It was a matter of time for my father to pass away. The very thought of this annoyed me. There was no other outcome that was possible. Dad would never be going home again, he would never play bowls again, never walk along the golf course, never drive his car, never swim in his pool, and never go and get his next library book by himself.
I wonder if he was thinking about any of these things, and I wonder if he ever thought about his last game of bowls, his last beer at the Bowls Club and the last time he drove the car. Dad used to love going off in the car and run his errands. It was part of the routine.
He would fill the car up with petrol once a week, go to the library and get his latest batch of books to read. He would then go to the market and get some fresh fillets of fish that Mum would prepare for both of them.
Every now and then, he would see something special that he wanted to buy. Yes, there was so much routine, but with that came comfort, and I suspect, some degree of happiness.
Dad’s last overseas trip had been to Canada and Alaska on a cruise, and on that occasion, Mum was the one who was taken off a train in the Rockies and rushed to a nearby hospital.
Life had thrown up plenty of twist and turns as my parents aged. One and then the other had fallen to some kind of ailment and sometimes, they both suffered at the same time.
As I entered the hospital foyer, I had another rush of uncertainty wash over me. Something was bugging me more than usual today and I didn’t know what it was.
I took the elevator back up to the Palliative Care ward and as I walked into the ward, past the reception, I took a deep breath. I felt eyes watching me and suddenly I heard a familiar voice.
“Hey Mark, how’s it going?”
I turned around to see Roger’s smiling face approaching me with his arm already extended to shake mine. I stopped and twisted far enough to be able to greet Roger’s hand and respond in kind.
“Hey Roger, all good. What about you?”
Roger knew better to believe all was good in my world. I had come to learn that while in hospitals, sharing emotions and feelings were not as common as you think they should be.
This was perhaps another reason why many people struggle with relationships: the inability to be authentically honest with each other in any situation.
If only we could trust ourselves and others to speak the truth every time, rather than trying to predict the outcome and therefore manufacturing up vocabulary to get responses that meet our expectations.
Roger wasn’t going to hang around too long to have any philosophical chat with me. He explained that he had just finished a night shift and was about to fly out the door and head home to sleep.
He wished me a good day and I wished him a good rest. I continued walking towards Bed 25.
As I walked into Dad’s room, I felt a cold rush run down my spine. Whatever it was, it unnerved me and quicker my steps to get a glimpse of Dad. He was awake but he looked terrible.
“Good morning, Dad,” I greeted him as I walked in.
“Hi Mark,” came a weak, tired, and frail response.
“How did you sleep?” I asked.
“Okay,” came the reply.
Again, knowing it wasn’t the truth, I let it go. What else was I suppose to do?
I asked, “You have no pain, Dad?”
I was still quite amazed that the man was approaching his final breaths and yet his failing body was not making him endure any kind of pain at all. It was a miracle.
Since being admitted to the previous hospital and now in this one in the Palliative Care Ward, Dad had been administered zero pain medication.
I walked over to the chair in the corner of the room beside my bed and started to tell Dad about my walk to the lake and how another predictable hot summer day about to begin outside.
He nodded and didn’t appear interested in that useless piece of information I had just shared. I didn’t want to small talk with Dad. I wanted to go deep and meaningful.
So I started.
“Any thoughts to share Dad?”
“Yes,” he replied.
Oh my, was I in for another groundbreaking moment here.
“I’d like to go outside again later today,” he said.
“Well, you just tell me when you are ready and I will take you out, okay?”
Then morning slipped away like every other morning had since Dad had been admitted to this ward. A nurse would stick her head in from time to time to check if everything was alright.
The nurses definitely enjoyed the fact that I was staying there 24x7 as that allowed them to double down on doing pretty much nothing.
I continued to take Dad to the bathroom, get him his fluids, and on the off chance that he wanted to eat something, I would arrange for that as well.
Food was something that Dad had given up on. As the days ticked, he was slowly but surely shutting down. There was nothing I or anyone else could do. This is how the end of life happens, or so I was witnessing in this particular case.
I did think to myself on this particular day that I was happy that I was keeping notes about this experience. After all, I might one day write a short story about spending the last days with my father and how that experience was.
At around 11 am, Dad asked me to take him outside. He was too unwell to walk so we decided to wheel his bed outside.
Dad’s face showed that he was looking forward to this. A big day out in his life journey had come down to having his bed moved about 5 metres out into the sunshine.
It wasn’t long ago that he was talking about traveling to different places around the world.
I was once again consumed about what was going through Dad’s mind and whether or not I would ever find out.
We had been outside for about twenty minutes when my mother, sister, and then aunty and uncle arrived to visit. We all sat around Dad’s bed, and because he was perched high off the ground, he had the presence of a king, albeit a very weak and frail one.
The chatter was predominately small talk, the kind I disliked immensely. It was about other people and judgements flying left right and centre. Every now and then, someone would ask
Dad a question as if it were an afterthought to keep him engaged.
Dad had done his arm exercises which had become a routine that he seemed to enjoy. It was as if he was playing a little game with himself and that he had set himself a goal to do more circles than he had the last time.
Time passed and, as with most family conversations, the chatter dried up. Dad had fallen in and out of sleep on several occasions but he looked a lot happier whenever we were outside.
At around 2.30 pm, the visitors left and Dad said goodbye to them all. I wonder if they went away thinking that may have been the last goodbye. Dad had made a special enquiry of
Mum to find out what she was going to do when she got home.
She said she would do some housework and that my sister and her were going to a local Chinese restaurant for dinner.
Dad told them to enjoy themselves.
It was back to Dad and I. I asked Dad if he wanted to go back inside. He didn’t.
After another thirty minutes or so, the nurse appeared and asked if we needed a hand to get Dad back inside. I’m not sure what her agenda was as I had always managed to get Dad in and out alone.
I explained to her that Dad didn’t want to go back inside yet and that he was going to stay outside a little longer.
“Well, we might move your dad into the big chair for a while and I will make his bed and get it all clean for him for tonight,” she explained.
Dad seemed okay with that.
The nurse and I then positioned the big comfy chair outside next to Dad’s bed. I then lifted him into the chair. He was lighter than ever. The saying ‘a bag of bones’ came to mind as I gently placed him in the chair, making sure I didn’t hurt him.
The nurse moved Dad’s bed inside and went about removing the old sheets and making the bed fresh and clean for the night ahead.
Dad and I remained outside and now we were on the same level. Dad asked for another blanket so I went inside and grabbed two blankets. It must have been around 27 degrees outside yet he was feeling cold.
I wasn’t sure what the blood was doing in his veins.
There wasn’t to much talk about. Dad was happy to sit and stare around the empty courtyard. I was surprised that no other patients had taken the opportunity to get outside.
Then it dawned on me that the majority of patients here were not well enough to do anything at all, and they weren’t going to be here for too long.
I tried to kick start a conversation with Dad.
“So, do you want to watch tennis again tonight Dad?”
“Yes, that would be good,” he responded.
“Who’s playing?” he asked after a pause.
I had no idea who was playing so I took the best guess I could.
“Federer is playing, but I’m not sure whom he is playing against,” I winged it.
Dad nodded. I knew he felt happy as he loved watching Roger Federer play.
He asked me who else was still left in the tournament as we were closing in on the semi-finals and the deciding part of the tournament.
“Djokovic is still there,” I uttered the first name that came to my mind.
Another nod of approval from Dad although I knew he preferred Federer over Djokovic any day.
With that, we had confirmed our night plans. It wasn’t exactly a big change from every other night. Instead of cricket, it was now tennis. The fish and chip dinners and lunches had come to an abrupt end, though.
The sun sunk deeper on the horizon and soon Dad and I were sitting in the dark. It was magical out in the courtyard at this time of the day. The savage heat from the sun was replaced with a balmy evening feel. Dad was still wrapped in his blankets. I asked if he needed more, he didn’t.
The nurse who had made the bed earlier never resurfaced so we sat outside without anyone or anything bothering us.
“How are you feeling, Dad?” I checked on him.
“I’m tired of all of this,” he replied.
His answer shocked me.
Where was the standard ‘ok’ reply? That was what I was expecting, not this.
“Tired of what, Dad?”
“Tired of feeling sick.”
“Do you have pain, Dad?”
Then a pause.
“I’m just tired of being in hospitals and not going anywhere. I want to go home,” he finally said.
I wasn’t expecting that either, and I could feel tears forming in my eyes.
We had talked as a family, about Dad going home to spend his last days. Mum didn’t want it, and that was exactly why he was here in the Palliative Care Ward.
I think Dad had figured out that Mum didn’t want him at home, and it had hurt him. It had made him sad. Mum acknowledged that she couldn’t cope with his sickness, and somehow, I could understand her point.
On the other hand, Dad wanted the comfort and security of being in his bed, being around the things he treasured. Not in this sterile transit lounge waiting to visit heaven. This is not how he wanted it, and up until this very minute, he had kept a lid on that feeling.
Again, I was confronted with a situation that we never train for in life, or that we never talk about. I mean, who’s going to start a conversation about ‘where one should go to die’? It’s not the kind of dinner table conversation that many families have, right?
I so badly wanted to take Dad home. I wanted to give the man his wishes.
“You know it’s not possible to go home now, right Dad?” I asked.
Had I just put the knife through my father’s heart?
“Yeah,” came a weak and painful reply from Dad.
“I’m sorry, Dad. I wish I could do something.”
“You’ve done more than you can imagine, Mark.”
I was taken aback for a second. I didn’t know if it was a compliment or a sarcastic remark given my obvious blunder.
“I want to thank you for all that you have done, Mark. For your mother and me,” Dad continued.
Another unexpected thing.
“You’re welcome, Dad. I hope that I haven’t been too much of a pain in the ass. I have only done what I have because I love you,” I said.
“I know,” came the reply.
We were crossing new territory and this was big for both of us. Twilight was usually reserved for sunsets and relaxation but was presenting me with far more than any exotic cocktail could on this balmy Australian summer night.
“Can I get you anything?” I asked.
I wanted to make Dad more comfortable but I didn’t know how. It seemed like a losing battle. I didn’t want to keep saying the wrong things, yet I didn’t know what the right things were.
Dad responded in the negative to my question.
The twilight soon gave way to darkness and the courtyard came to life with a few soft lights from the small garden plots. It was serene and dare I say it quite beautiful.
Dad showed no interest to go inside and I certainly didn’t want to push the matter. It wasn’t long until the tennis match would start and Dad was a man who was never late for a sporting show on TV. Now, he was taking in and savouring his surroundings as he had never done before.
As the clock ticked on, Dad started to show awareness like I had never seen before in my entire time of knowing the man. Our conversation had ended, but our connection felt stronger than ever. In just a few sentences, something had been created that I had never experienced with my father.
As we now sat in silence, it was his actions that gave me the next breakthrough in understanding the man, understanding life, as well as understanding pending death.
As the sky above our heads started to populate with as many bright and marvellous stars as you could possibly imagine, I noticed that Dad’s head had turned skyward. It was as if he was visualising where he was heading to next.
It was such an eerie situation. I wanted to say something. I wanted to ask him what he was thinking, yet I didn’t need to. I felt it all. Dad was preparing himself. This was it, he was taking himself to his next destination. He was ready to go.
Had our short, brief conversation helped him in some way to way to reach this stage?
He continued to look skyward, and as he did, his eyes were transfixed on the stars. His face was brighter than I had seen in weeks, months, perhaps even years. There was something very beautiful unfolding in front of me, so much so that I started to feel lighter myself.
As Dad gazed to the heavens above, I thought about what it must be like to transition to the afterlife. What is the final signal? I had never seen Dad in a moment like this before. Clarity had come to him in waves of peace and serenity. Whatever he was experiencing at this moment was energising him.
I wanted time to freeze.
I wanted this moment to last forever.
This was the way it was meant to be - Dad and I alone under the night sky one last time together, or was it?