I never really gave the concept of death that much thought. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I had plenty of close calls in my life, but no matter how scary it was in those moments, I didn’t think I would lose the fight.
So when you hear a doctor say that you may not last the weekend, it’s quite the game-changer. My dad had just heard those words, and I had no idea what was going to happen after the doctor left the room.
I wished Dad would show more emotion, or some emotion, damn it. Everything was so ho-hum with him. But this, this of all times, was a chance for Dad to let it all out. I figured I could encourage him to talk. He must’ve been burning up inside.
To say that your life just flashed before your eyes was an understatement. I looked at Dad and his focus was on the ceiling. He was lost somewhere. He didn’t even notice Rosie the nurse come in and set up his blood pressure reading.
I looked up at that same spot on the ceiling and wondered if there was a sign, a signal or even a mark there. Hospital ceilings are so boring, aren’t they? Why don’t they paint murals on the ceilings, bright clouded scenes to cheer people up? No one in this place appears to be having a good time.
I started to feel angry. Angry at the system, angry at myself, angry at Dad’s doctors, and angry at Dad. It was me who was showing the emotions, maybe enough for us both, but it was eating me apart.
I waited for Rosie to do her thing, filled Dad’s plastic cup, and then sat down in my chair and waited. I waited for Dad to talk.
“So,” I had to break the silence.
“What do you think about what the doctor said?”
There was no soft landing; I went straight in, hard and fast.
“Not such good news, I guess,” Dad uttered. It felt like it took all the energy in him to answer that.
How could I respond to that? It was the understatement of the decade.
“Well, there are two ways of looking at it, I guess,” I attempted, trying to keep some kind of upbeat momentum.
“What’s that?” Dad enquired.
“Well, how about we…” I started, trying to make it known to Dad that we were in this together.
“How about we turn this around, and get you well enough to get out of here?”
“How are we going to do that?” Dad asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Let’s see. First of all, to prove him wrong, we need to make sure you are feeling better and looking better when he comes to work next week,” I suggested.
An ‘aha’ was all I got out of Dad.
“Look, let’s double down on the fish and chips and beer over the weekend. There’s plenty of cricket on television and we don’t have to sit here and worry about other stuff.”
“Ok then,” Dad said. I think Dad agreed to my infamous plan just to shut me up, but it didn’t work.
“So I will take care of the catering. You make sure no unwanted visitors appear here and I will do the rest,” I said.
His responses were getting shorter and there was no enthusiasm in his voice what so ever.
I added, “Great. I’m just going to go out and plan a few things, give me twenty minutes and I’ll be back.”
“Sure, I’m not going anywhere,” replied a resigned man.
I nodded, got up and headed out of the room.
I had to go. I was on the verge of tears. I felt absolutely helpless. Here I was, trying to comfort and be there for my father in his greatest hours of need, but I didn’t know how to handle my own emotions.
The elevator door opened and I stepped inside. The occupants, many who I’m sure noticed my sorry state at that moment. I braved myself as the elevator descended the two floors to the ground level.
As soon as the elevator doors opened, my eyes and nose started dripping with their respective fluids. I wanted to run and hide, to be sucked up by a giant hole in the ground; unfortunately, they don’t build those inside hospitals.
I quickly made for the exit that led me out to the gardens so I could find solace and energy once again. By the time I found my favourite bench seat under a tree, I was a total mess.
I felt a sudden wave of guilt come over me.
You idiot, you left your father alone after he just received the worse news of his life. How do you think he is feeling right now? How do you think his stomach feels compared to your churning mess? Get back in there and support him now, move, come on!
But I couldn’t move. So I sat there, and as I did, visions of those times when I needed or wanted my father to be there for me and he wasn’t came flashing back to me.
Was this payback? No, it wasn’t.
No, I wasn’t being cynical. I had never been as lonely as I felt now. This rollercoaster of emotions had started the day my flight landed back in Australia and is still present two and a half years later.
To say I was out of sorts, lost, lonely and afraid, was an understatement. Men can be such reserved creatures, seemingly unable to share emotions or feel secure enough to talk about what’s bothering them. If the conversation wasn’t about women, work, or footy, no one appeared interested.
As I sat in that garden, I felt all the years of pressure, stress, and sadness and little joy that had accumulated within me. In fact, I believe that there was no joy at all at that moment. I never understood why I had next to zero of a relationship with the two people who brought me into this world.
I had tried at times to make it better, but it just didn’t work.
I made so many mistakes along the way and was still making them. Maybe Dad would be better off without me?
Maybe I was making this all about me? Does ego have to play such a big roll in death?
What was the point of our lives anyway? My thoughts spiralled.
Most people spend the majority of their lives at work, to earn money, to buy stuff, and to go places, but then we all end up dying. So what’s all the fuss about?
How can that be an intelligent species? We are cruel, we are rude, we are busy, and then when it really matters, are we present?
Do we show up when it counts?
I spent most of my life away from my parents. Time differences meant it was really hard to connect by phone; in fifteen years while I was away, I never received one phone call from them.
Was I bitter?
Perhaps, but I mostly sad.
My thoughts went back to Dad. What was he thinking as he laid there in his room alone? What was going on in his mind?
I needed to find out. I had to try and break down those walls and create perhaps the most important bridge in my life.
After another ten minutes of introspective solitude, I jumped to my feet with a plan firmly ingrained in my cerebral cortex, a plan to try and turn this all around.
I walked back towards Dad’s room with a purpose.
As I marched towards his room, I suddenly heard from behind me: “Hello dearest, you’re rushing off fast!”
I turned around to see my frail Aunty standing there with her husband.
“Howdy, how are you both?” I said as I spotted them. I slowed my pace to match theirs as we walked toward Dad’s room together.
“We’re not too bad for an old couple,” my Aunty replied, upbeat despite both she and her husband were dealing with health issues of their own.
“How’s Father?” my Aunty asked.
“Not so good actually. We just got some bad news,” I started.
“Oh, anything we should know?”
“Well if it comes up, let’s leave it to Dad to bring it up ok?”
I said that knowing that it was highly unlikely for Dad to say, “Hey, guess what? I have just been told by my doctor that I won’t be here on Monday,” or something similar.
The three of us finally made it to the entrance of Dad’s room, only to see that Dad wasn’t alone. One of his mates from bowls decided to visit.
As Dad had been so ill, we tried to limit the number of visitors. He would tire easy and, as someone who didn’t enjoy small talk, he would also get bored quickly. He was, however, a master at throwing out the odd yawn, or would just say he was tired and people would leave.
We entered the room anyway, and Dad introduced his mate to us.
“Well Philpott, I will leave you to your family,” his friend said.
Dad was always referred to as ‘Philpott’ at the bowls club. In any other setting, this would be somewhat of a rude gesture. In this instance though, it was merely a term of endearment.
Dad shook his mate’s hand and the rather large gentlemen got up and made his way to the door. As he did, Dad said,
“Hey Ron, make sure those buggers don’t cheat next week.”
Ron laughed and as shouted as he exited, “they won’t bloody get away with that mate.”
The smile on Dad’s face was priceless. His mates at the bowls club meant the world to him.
His time there every week was precious and now they were showing their respect and love for my Dad; for me, that was priceless.
When Ron left, we took our seats around Dad’s bed. My uncle stood by the window, while Aunty stood at the right side of Dad’s bed, leaving me seated in my ceremonial throne as it had now been labelled.
Aunty began with the usual small talk.
“How are you feeling?”
“How’s the food?”
“Are you sleeping okay?”
“Do you have any pain?”
To the last question, yes, I thought, he does, only from these questions.
Dad answered all these questions with the least number of words as possible. His sister and he had a very distant yet close relationship - if that makes sense. Two people who genuinely cared for each other, perhaps even loved each other, but showed it very awkwardly most of the time.
Their conversation dragged on and I tuned out most of it. My Aunty and Uncle hadn’t come to see me, so I let them chat with Dad without any interruptions from the sidelines.
‘What’s the next step with your treatment then?” my Aunty finally asked.
I quickly look at Dad for a reaction. He paused and moved his legs slightly as he seemed to build up energy to respond.
Then he let rip.
“Well my bloody doctor was just in here this morning, and he told me I won’t be around after the weekend, didn’t he Mark?” Dad looked at me, as everyone else followed his gaze.
The room fell deftly silent.
I’ve been in many difficult corporate settings over the years when pregnant pauses were used to good effect. This, however, was like nothing I had ever encountered before.
Thankfully my Aunty picked up the slack.
“What do you mean he said you won’t be around?” she asked.
Not that I ever wanted to hear the response again; it was inevitable now that this whole conversation and the energy in the room was about to take a very dark turn.
I was once again learning that it’s truly a horrible feeling when you know your parents are closer to the end of their lives. A pathway that doesn’t come with a training manual, nor a timeframe.
Every day a new sequence of events occur that will test you, test them, test your beliefs, and give you a new understanding of life.
I was sick and tired of being tested, and yet here we were once again, up close and personal with a chapter called the end of life.
My aunty started crying first, then I felt tears swelling in my eyes. I glanced across to my uncle and, yes, we had a trifecta. Dad lay resolute, emotionless in bed.
I wiped my eyes and jumped in.
“Okay, we aren’t going to talk about that right now. Let’s chat about cricket and decide what’s for lunch.”
“Dad, fish and chips?” I asked.
“No disagreements from me,” he said.
Now that I had turned the titanic around, I had to keep it afloat for a bit longer. Unfortunately, it was too much for Aunty to bear. She quietly walked out of the room. Her husband followed.
Dad looked and me and rolled his eyes. I wasn’t sure why.
I stayed focus on my mission.
“So which cricket game do you want to watch today? There are two matches on,” I asked Dad.
“Let’s watch them both,” Dad replied.
I was delighted to hear his response. I knew cricket would take his mind off the reality of the moment.
After several minutes, Aunty and Uncle reappeared. Now with their eyes dried up again, they sat down and resumed the conversation about cricket. No more talk about the end of life.
Thirty minutes later, it was time for them to leave.
It became increasingly interesting to watch how people dealt with what was going on. I had my own thing going on with Dad. Several of the nurses had taken a shine to Dad and you could see how his failing condition was even starting to make them sad at times.
The doctors, on the other hand, appeared resolute when it came to doing their jobs. Efficiency often outweighed and outranked compassion. I guess it was a numbers game for them.
In Australia alone, four hundred and forty people on average die every day from all causes. Death is a very real thing yet we spend so little time talking about it, how we feel about it, the experiences we have surrounding it - all of which are reasons why I wanted to write this book.
In my opinion, we should talk about it more. Whether we like it or not, it is part of everyone’s journey, our last dance.
After my aunt and uncle left, it was back to trying to pump Dad up again. I ordered the fish and chips, requested a couple of beers, and sorted the games he wanted to watch.
I could see a tinge of satisfaction form in Dad’s eyes and, for the first time that day, I felt that my presence was positive.
How long would it remain that way, though? I wondered.
Dad loved reading. He was one of the most well-read people I have ever met. He would consume books like most do calories. He loved crime thrillers, war and action novels, sci-fi, and anything by Wilbur Smith, Tom Clancy or Frederick Forsyth.
Dad had a unique reading behaviour. He kept a notebook of all of the books he read, with details like the author’s name, title, and dates of when he read them. His accounting book was enormous, and he told me he did this so that whenever he was looking out for more books at the library or bookstores, he wouldn’t end up getting the same book again. Smart man.
I often caught him sitting on the chaise lounge at home with his nose and mind buried in a book. He would sit for hours on end, losing himself in those other worlds. It was probably his way of escaping his reality.
Now in the hospital, reading had become a waning pastime. His concentration wasn’t the same and, with all the distractions that hospital stays demand, it was difficult to stay focused and read without interruption.
The match hadn’t started just yet so I asked him if he wanted to read for a while. He shook his head in the negative.
Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the match started, the fish and chips arrived and his beer was chilled. I noticed, though, that Dad’s appetite had reduced, and he barely touched the beer.
Since Dad didn’t finish his beer, I found the perfect excuse, not being a beer lover, to ditch mine.
“Hey, come on, finish that beer,” Dad said when he noticed I didn’t touch mine either.
“Nah, don’t feel like it today.”
Other than that incident, the day passed rather well. By the time the second match finished, Dad was snoring his head off even though he was still perched up in his bed. I noticed his breathing had become more laboured.
Did the doctors know something I didn’t?
The fact that they had stopped his medication however didn’t seem to make any noticeable change to his condition, but I was worried that this was simply the calm before the storm.
What was going on inside his body? More importantly, what was going on inside his head? I wondered.
We both slept well that night.
The next morning, I didn’t expect was to see what I did.
I woke up just after 6 am. There was no such thing as sleeping in at the hospital. If it isn’t nurses doing their rounds then it’s the janitors banging their buckets and mops and whistling a tune as they carried out their job.
Dad had made mates with Russell the friendly janitor who came in every morning as bright as a daisy, whistling away as if he had just won first prize at the lottery. Russell and Dad would discuss the cricket and complain about certain players’ performance and then predict the winner of today’s game. Standard chat, fifteen minutes in total, and everybody ended up happy.
That’s what life should be about, folks. Small things that make you happy every day, things that you don’t take for granted. Russell had little idea what impact he was having on my father, and I wouldn’t understand either until the end.
It was Sunday and that meant a quiet day at the hospital. No doctors doing rounds, smaller staff numbers, and a lingering feeling that everything was on hold, or paused.
I was thrilled to wake up and see that Dad was awake before me and that he was still here. I had gone into this panic every morning thinking what if he wasn’t breathing when I woke up.
The doctor’s prediction on Friday that Dad wouldn’t be here when he came to work Monday still haunted me. I wanted to do whatever I could to prove that doctor wrong.
The good news was that, on this particular day, I didn’t need to do a thing. Dad was about as sprightly as I had seen him since before he was admitted to the hospital this time around. He was chatty with the nurses, asked me all kinds of stuff, and relived the fish and chips and cricket from the previous day.
He even had the energy to read his book for a few hours and made it to the bathroom on his own. This was amazing. Was I having visions?
I used to spend hours on my computer while Dad slept, researching the possibilities of what was happening inside Dad’s body. Dr. Google had become my best mate. I wanted to see if I could out prove the doctors wrong. Haha, sure I could.
I would check Dad’s medicines, look for homeopathic remedies, and search for every possible alternative to make Dad better again. But on this Sunday, I didn’t need to do a thing.
Instead, Dad’s sudden change got me thinking.
The doctors had taken Dad off all of his toxic medications on Friday morning. Had his body healed itself? Was that why he was starting to feel better?
Was I being extremely naive and just hoping for the best, or could it be possible that he was actually improving?
As the day went on, that hope started to grow stronger in me, and when Dad told me that he was feeling the best he had in days, my feelings were confirmed.
“You had better get your speech ready for that Doctor who said he most likely wouldn’t see you again,” I confidently proclaimed.
Dad’s response was simple.
“I already told him to have a good weekend and I would see him next week, remember?” Dad smiled.
Dad was never one to be too cocky, and I knew that’s where he would leave it. I, on the other hand, had started to think about what I would say to that doctor first thing on Monday morning.
The remainder of that Sunday passed without incident. We didn’t have any serious bump in the road and no rude shocks. Dad had what I would label as his best day in hospital thus far.
My mission persevered: keep the beer and fish and chips rolling, and get rid of toxic chemicals and medications.
Unfortunately, my earlier suspicions were about to turn true. This was, in fact, the calm before the storm. That weekend will live long in my memory for many positive reasons.
Things were about to change and fast.