The afternoon outside was remarkable. Now, as we sat outside in the darkness, with what seemed like millions of stars above our heads, the feeling I had toward my father was one I had never felt before.
All this while I felt a lack of love between my parents and me, yet here I was, feeling otherwise all of a sudden. I cared so deeply for the man beside me, and the only thing that was making me sad was knowing that this night, this moment, would not last forever.
Two hours had passed since either Dad or I uttered a word. The presence of each other was sufficient. Whatever it was that was happening to him was beautiful and unparalleled in his life journey thus far.
I found myself staring skyward too, looking for answers of my own. I started to realise what life really meant and that this connection, emotional and spiritual, was the greatest gift or bond we could share with another human being. It was greater than any paycheck, job title or a fancy house overlooking the sea.
I was embracing the moment. My father remained transfixed on the distant stars and it was like his presence here on earth was no longer real. His physical body sat next to me, but where were his mind and soul?
The blanket that was keeping him warm had fallen from his chest yet there was no sign that he was feeling chilly or uncomfortable in any way. I let it go, reluctant to end his temporary respite from his current situation.
Another hour passed before Dad finally spoke.
“Mark, can we go inside?”
And so our magnificent session came to an end.
“Sure, Dad,” I responded.
I got up from my chair and made my way to his and helped him up. As I did, I felt an incredible warmth from him, like I had never felt before. The heat radiating from his arm took me by surprise.
As we started to turn, Dad took one last look skyward and we made our way inside.
Dad wanted to go to the bathroom so once again we two men of the Philpott clan made our way to the bathroom together. No sense of embarrassment lingered as we had found ourselves in this situation a hundred times in the last 24 days that Dad had been in the hospital.
After Dad had brushed own teeth, the testament of his maximum physical capability, I moved him back to his bed. I noticed that he didn’t return the toothbrush and toothpaste to his toiletry bag as he had done religiously every other evening.
Once in his bed, I made sure he was warm by putting another blanket over him. I asked him if he was okay. He nodded in the affirmative.
“Tennis?” I asked.
He nodded again.
I switched on the TV, made a beeline for my bed and laid down. I suddenly felt a long day’s worth of tiredness.
The game had already started. I don’t think Dad was too fussed about what we missed, and something made me feel that he wasn’t really into it at all.
“Dad, did you have a nice day today?” I asked.
“Yes, I did. Thanks, Mark,” came the reply.
Somehow, the use of my name always made our conversations seem more formal and manufactured. Dad and I never had many informal conversations - there were no ‘two blokes having a chat about something’ moments. My Dad wasn’t that kind of man around me.
I was, however, pleased to hear that he enjoyed his day.
“Did you enjoy sitting outside tonight?”
“Very much,” Dad replied.
I knew that it had meant something to him. What exactly, I didn’t know, and I never would.
“We can do it again tomorrow if you like,” I offered.
Dad just nodded.
To me, that nod meant that tomorrow was still a long way away, and he was taking things in stride.
We watched the rest of the tennis without much talk. It was a short match so Dad made it to the end before falling asleep. Once I saw his eyes closed, as I did every night, I would make sure Dad was tucked in and warm, say goodnight while looking at his face, and then switch off the light.
Then I’d play the treacherous game of trying to find my bed in the dark without stubbing my toe on something. A game I had lost twice in just the previous five nights.
Somehow, I made it to bed safe this night.
“Have a good sleep, Dad. See you in the morning,” I called out in the dark after tucking myself in.
“Goodnight, Mark,” was the response.
I didn’t go to sleep straight away. Like most nights, when I was emotionally and physically drained, it wouldn’t be long before I knocked out cold. On this particular night, I stared at the ceiling thinking about our time outside and how Dad had seemed the whole time.
I found myself smiling knowing that Dad and I could be okay in each other’s company.
I listened for Dad’s snoring to kick in, but it didn’t. Tonight, for some reason, he was still, peaceful and emitting no noise at all. Eventually, I fell into a deep slumber.
I woke up out at about 5 am. It was pitch black in the room, and all I could make out was Dad laying on his back as I had left him when we had gone to sleep. His breathing was unusual, something I hadn’t heard before. He wasn’t snoring, the breathing was hasty, as though he was dreaming about something.
All of a sudden, he let out a gulp. Not like, a trying to breathe gulp, more like a swallowing gulp. It worried me, so I got up and walked to his bedside. Something, I don’t know what it was, made me sit on his bed.
Dad was shaking. I thought he was having a nightmare. I reached for his hand and held it.
“It’s ok Dad, it’s ok. It’s just a dream,” I tried to settle him.
The shuddering continued and that’s when it dawned upon me.
I had never been in the presence of a dying person before. I was about to experience what this felt like up close and personal. I left the light off, and just sat there holding Dad’s hand.
His eyes were shut and his face peaceful, yet his body was fighting. All kinds of thoughts rushed through my mind and my veins. Please let him go peacefully, I asked.
I wasn’t sure whom I was asking, but I asked anyway.
Tears started to roll down my face as the gravity of the situation unfolded. I was alone again, as I had been for so long. This time it was just me and Dad in a way that we had never been before.
I squeezed his hand, and as I did, I told him that I loved him.
There was no physical response from Dad.
I didn’t call the nurse. What was the point? I thought. What was she going to do, stand there and be with us? I didn’t want anyone there. I didn’t want my mother or sister. I just wanted my Dad to myself. I wanted it to be him and me, one last time.
The tears from my face dripped on the bed. Time stood still and Dad showed me that he was battling himself. Perhaps he wasn’t ready, he didn’t want to go. There was a blockage somewhere. Then he let out a big noise. Not a scream or anything, just a noise. It’s hard to describe what it sounded like. I hadn’t heard a noise from a dying person before.
My hand remained locked in his. I told him it was okay, it was okay to let go, to feel calm and peace. He would be okay. I had no idea where these words of mine were coming from. I had not rehearsed for this moment, I had no idea if I was even going to be there when it happened.
Yet, here we were on the morning of day 25, and it was happening.
A few minutes passed and then it stopped. Dad stopped breathing. The struggle was over. He had let go. He had finally and peacefully surrendered. The floodgate opened and I started bawling. The weight of the moment took over me.
I was holding a dead man’s hand. Not just any lifeless hand; it was my father’s hand. I loved him more than ever at this moment.
“Dad, I love you,” I said again.
I was sobbing. I was never going to get a reply. No more chances to watch tennis with him, to sit outside together, to eat fish and chips, to have a beer. It was all gone, just like that. Life had ended.
I looked at Dad’s face and he looked cold, fragile and, very ill. The energy he had been radiating from the night before had departed. He was now a corpse. I hated the word, and never wanted to think of anyone as a corpse, let alone my own father.
I sat and stared at him, crying my eyes out. I didn’t want to move. I spoke to him. I told him I was sorry; sorry for anything I had said that hurt him. I told him that he was a good man and that I hoped that he had enjoyed his life.
Few minutes passed. I don’t actually know how long it was, but I decided it was time to tell the staff. I didn’t want to leave Dad. I didn’t like the fact that he had left me.
I left the room. My face a mess of tears and a runny nose. A nurse saw me approaching and immediately knew what had happened. I guessed they had seen it time and time again.
“Dad’s gone?” she asked.
I nodded my head in the affirmative. I wasn’t able to get a word out of my mouth.
I walked back to Dad’s room, hoping some miracle had happened and that he was sitting up in bed waiting for me.
It hadn’t and there he was, as I had left him.
I went back and sat beside him. I held his hand again.
The nurse had come in behind me. She had a clipboard. She reached over and took Dad’s arm in search of a pulse. Nothing. She looked at the clock on the wall and wrote down the time. It would be his official time of passing on the death certificate, but it wasn’t. Only I know what time my father had passed away.
She asked if I needed anything. I shook my head. I said I wanted to be with Dad.
“Just come and get me when you are ready, Mark. I am truly sorry for your loss,” she said before leaving the room.
Her words put my tear glands to work once again, and within seconds I was bawling my eyes out.
I sat with Dad for I don’t know how long. I had no idea what would happen next, what the procedure was. I knew that Dad wanted to be cremated, and I was sure that there was a timeline by which they needed to do that.
None of that mattered right now. All that mattered was that my Dad was left dignified. I took the hospital bracelet with his name off him. I wanted to have that as a remembrance of our time spend together in his last days. No one else was getting that.
A memento for me of our amazing twenty-five days together.
I looked down at Dad.
“Thank you for showing me you were a real man, Dad” I whispered amidst sobs.
As I spoke those words, I tried to comprehend its total meaning to me. Did I feel that he had been anything other than a man? No, but it wasn’t until we had the conversations that we had where I felt he had crossed that bridge for me. I respected him now so much more for that.
I saw his ability to love, as I had shown him mine, and together we had found a comfortable arrangement. He didn’t leave me thinking of him as the best father in the world, but he did leave me knowing that he had tried to do what he could, with what he had. That was more than enough for me.
The night before his passing will remain embedded in my memory forever. The gift my father had given me, to understand precisely that it was indeed his last night alive, the last night under the stars, the last night of not knowing what was on the other side.
I knew that he had found something in those stars, perhaps something that he had been searching for his entire life. I will never know, and I don’t need to. Whatever it was, it had made a cold man warm, a lost and frightened soul at peace, and it had prepared him for whatever was next.
I took from that night my solace, my understanding of the end of life. I had sat next to him very much in the ‘now’, and as Dad saw his end, I felt my own presence in his departure. I felt his soul go first and arrive at his new home. I knew inside that he would not be alone, that he was safe, and that he would be okay.
As I sat next to Dad, I started to process some peace of my own. The hurt and sudden anger I felt when he breathed his last was subsiding. Instead, all I could think of was our last magical night together.
The past 25 days had been an incredible journey of self-discovery as well as discovering my father in a way I never knew him. He lay in front of me now lifeless yet he filled me in some bizarre way with so much life.
I thanked him for giving me what the universe had brought me back to Australia to receive. The puzzle of life was slowly being solved. Life is ultimately a circle. We come and we go. I waited until I felt I was ready. I took some pictures, maybe others wanted to see him. I wanted my own memory of that moment, something that was so precious.
I stood up and pulled the blanket up to Dad’s chin so he was warm. His eyes were closed and I felt he was at peace. The Indian gurus say that the body passes in five stages, and it is only after those five stages are completed that the journey to the other side is absolutely final.
I went outside and found the nurse hovering nearby. I told her I was ready. She instructed me to gather Dad’s personal belongings and anything else that was ours. She would contact the morgue for the next steps to commence.
Having received the to-do list, I returned to the room, now knowing that this would be the last time I would see my father’s physical being.
I went over again to the bed and thanked him. I told him I loved him again. I even told him not to have too many fish and chips and to go easy on the beer. I smiled as I said it.
I then went about the room and put his belongings, the belongings that he needed to survive in the last twenty-five days of his life on earth. Amazingly, not once in those twenty-five days did we speak about money, jobs, or anything other than things that mean the most, the connection and memories we created.
Another life lesson to self, stop chasing things that don’t matter and truly invest your time in people who matter.
As I tidied Dad’s things up, I continued to speak with him. I told him that I would look after everything. Even if most of the stuff I was collecting now was to be discarded. There was nothing that was needed but precious memories.
I put everything into the small suitcase that Dad brought in when was admitted to the other hospital. I rolled the small bag over to his bedside to let him know that I had everything and that it was time for me to go.
I thanked him again for being my Dad and for all that he had done. I thanked him for what had been a terrific last twenty-five days. I touched his arm one final time.
“See ya, Dad.”
I don’t know if I said ‘see ya’ to mean we’ll meet again sometime. I think that it was more a jovial ‘catch ya later’ type of comment.
I took another look at my father in that bed, and then my eyes glanced up to what was written above his bed; the number 25.
Dad was in bed number 25. This was the 25th morning of him being in the hospital.
I stopped and took that in. I walked to the door, turned around, looked at him one last time, smiled, and walked out.
By now, there were a few nurses at the nurses’ station. The sun had risen and the sunlight was streaming in.
“I have all of Dad’s things,” I announced to them.
“Thanks, Mark. Take care and know that your Dad will be looked after,” one of them replied.
I didn’t want to hang around. I kept walking, pulling the small brown roller suitcase behind me. I got in the elevator alone and descended to the ground floor. I never wanted to set foot in this hospital again.
I hadn’t called Mum or my sister to tell them of Dad’s passing, I wanted to do it in person. Neither of them wanted to be there, as they had explained before, so I would bring the news home.
It would never feel like home again, even though my mind my parents’ place had never been home to me. There was something even less homely about it now - Dad wasn’t going to be there.
The hospital was very quiet at that time of the morning. No other human being in sight as I walked across the main lobby and headed outside into the car park.
There would be no more walks to the lake in the morning. No more reflections as I watched the ducks clean themselves. No, life would now take on another dimension. What that was going to be, I had no idea.
I popped the trunk of the car open and put Dad’s suitcase inside. The moment hit me again. Each time before, I always had Dad with me when we were leaving a hospital with his suitcase. Not this time. I walked over to the driver’s side, sat behind the wheel, and cried my heart out again.
I remember saying for the first time.
“I miss you, Dad!”
I sat there and wondered what was happening to him now. Although at the same time I didn’t want to know. I had the memory of him laying there, finally in peace. That was what I wanted to reserve and that’s what I did reserve.
I started the car and pulled out of the car park. The sunrise hit my face as I tried to manoeuvre my way out of the hospital car park. I found the exit and headed home.
It was only a ten-minute drive and all I could think about along the way was Dad and what had transpired that morning. I had never been around someone who was drawing their last breath.
I had left my father at a hospital for the last time, unsure of what would happen next. I trusted strangers with my father’s body. He was totally defenceless, he was alone, and he was cold again.
As I continued to drive, I had no thoughts about what was going to happen. I had no idea how my family at home would react. I didn’t truly care. I was bringing the news of my father’s passing. It was and would be an individual thing that everyone would have to deal with in their own way.
All I wanted to do now was to protect the memories that Dad and I had created in the last twenty-five days. It was as if the entire relationship I had with my father was defined in just a little over three weeks.
For some strange reason, while driving, my eyes suddenly fell on the fuel meter. The car was low on fuel. I stopped to fill it up. As I did, I noticed people starting their day. Again, I thought of Dad.
He wasn’t starting his day as we had in the last few weeks. I wasn’t able to ask him how his sleep was and how he was feeling. What I would give right now for that opportunity. I looked at a man filling up his car near me and I felt like asking him if he realised how lucky he was to be alive.
Is this how I was going to see the world now?
Was I going to become cynical and judgemental of other people’s ability to live their life?
I went inside and paid for the fuel. The attendant behind the counter tapped me out and then wished me a great day.
A great day!
I wanted to scream. I felt like turning around and telling him what had just happened.
Isn’t it so true though: we can go about our normal day while somewhere else, someone has just lost a loved one, and we’ll never have an inkling of any of their sadness.
We don’t even know of the pain others carry with them on any given day. After all, did I look like a guy whose father had just passed?
How do we identify people who are in grief?
How can we help them?
Life had to go on for me. I got back in the car and continued to drive home.
As I entered the gated community where my parents lived. I slowed for the speed humps that littered the small road. As I negotiated each one, I thought about the times I had driven
Dad back from his bowls club or a doctor’s appointment.
I imagined him sitting next to me, his facial expressions, and the way he sat in the car.
Was I going to be like this everywhere I went now?
I finally reached the driveway to the apartment complex and drove the car down and inside the underground car park. I found the allocated car park spot that my parents had. I got out, opened the trunk, took Dad’s suitcase, and walked towards the door leading into the complex.
There were no signs of life this early in the morning in this apartment complex.
I opened the door into the lobby and lift area. I waited for the lift to arrive, walked inside, and pressed the button that read ‘4’.
It was only in the lift, while I was on the way up, that I realised I had no idea what to say to Mum and my sister. I quickly thought of the words I would use.
I arrived at the floor and walked to the apartment at the farthest end of the hallway.
As I approached the door, I took a deep breath and prepared myself for what was about to happen.