The ambulance pulled away from the hospital and I followed it closely behind in the car. The sun was shining, and it was already hot outside despite it being only 9.30 am. It was a monumental day in the life of my father, Barrie, and it was a huge day for me as well.
Dad was being transferred to another hospital, to be admitted into the Palliative Care Unit. Since the introduction of that word into my vocabulary, I had an instant distaste for everything about it. I couldn’t stand hearing it, and I certainly wasn’t looking forward to going there.
As I drove across town, alone in the car, my mind was inside that ambulance with Dad.
What must he be thinking?
How must he be feeling?
Was he thinking of anything at all?
Being told that you’re being driven to your last official address in life is such a horrendous pill to swallow. I couldn’t imagine what it must’ve been like for Dad.
Tears welled up in my eyes, and the longer the journey went on, the more connected it felt to my own life journey. From always feeling separated and disconnected, to being thrust into the middle of a chaotic and life-changing moment, it felt like things are just meant to be.
In some strange way, this was the attitude I was now adopting. I was meant to be here, and I was meant to be doing this. All of the reasons were not obvious to me then, but I was sure that over time perhaps they will become clearer.
I hadn’t allowed myself to think about what life might be like without a father. I had lived a life mainly without a father, and it seemed like I will face it again because of reasons beyond anyone’s control.
I don’t know what this journey was going to be like. I also didn’t know how it was going to change the dynamics of our family. I assumed that our disconnected and largely dysfunctional family would stay that way.
I recalled Dad’s departure from the ward where he had spent the past eighteen days. Many of the nurses and doctors came to bid Dad farewell and ironically sent wishes of good health. There was banter about the fish and chips, cricket and beer.
I copped my fair share of ridicule about my favourite chair/bed and how I had hung in there throughout the entire time.
Dad had, once again in his funny way, gathered a small following, and it had reminded me of his double life that he had lived at his local lawn bowls club.
I’m not sure how long it took to drive across town. I lost sight of the ambulance at one of the traffic lights. I was now on my own with my mind spinning and whirring from one situation to another.
There would be no doctors at the Palliative Care Unit, just nurses. This was another mark that the end was near and that we were just heading toward God’s waiting room.
Don Henley’s Age of Innocence was playing on the radio and my mind flashed back to my youth and memories of being around Dad.
He used to keep an immaculate garden at the family home. It was huge and he would grow all kinds of vegetables. He would spend endless hours in that garden. I’m sure it was another escape place for him; an organic man-cave if you like. As he cared for the seeds that he nurtured right through the time they were ready to be harvested and consumed, he was very proud of them.
I never had any indication that he was proud of me. He never let me know any of that. Maybe
I could get to ask him now, over these coming days, I wondered. I had no idea how much more time we would have together, but because we were heading to this morbid place, I guessed it wouldn’t be long.
I finally arrived at the new hospital, parked the car, and walked the short walk to the front of the shiny new glass looking building. Inside, a huge atrium greeted me as I walked into the main lobby area.
I made my way to the reception counter. This place was noticeably quieter than the hospital we had come from.
Many of the student nurses and doctors started here; which wasn’t very reassuring to me. As things start to go further downhill, you would want the best of the best looking after your parents, wouldn’t you?
I reached the reception only to see the lady behind the counter speaking on the phone. I waited and looked around. There was a notice on the reception window asking you to put your mobile phones on silent when in the hospital. A great idea, I thought.
“Hello, can I help you?”
I turned around to see that the middle-aged dark-haired woman sitting in the chair behind the glass partition was finally free to speak to me.
“Good morning. Can you please tell me where do I go to get to the Palliative Care Unit?”
“Are you visiting someone, love?” she asked.
I cannot stand it when someone who doesn’t know me calls me ‘love’. The hairs on the back of my neck go up. I am not sure what triggers that, but it has been something I have carried with me my entire life.
“Yes, my father has just been admitted,” I replied through gritted teeth.
“What’s his name, love?”
There it was again. I tried my best not to let it worry me, but I was operating in a state of heightened awareness about everything said to me and around me.
“Barrie Philpott,” I replied.
“Let me have a look in the system, love.”
I sighed. The lady took what seemed like an eternity. I wondered if I had beaten the ambulance to the hospital.
“Yes, here he is! Okay, so if you go down to the elevator on your left and take the lift to level four, then turn right when you get out of the elevator and follow the hallway down, you will eventually come to the Palliative Care Unit. There is another reception there.”
I thanked the lady and headed toward the elevator.
The hospital floor smelt like it had just been cleaned. In fact, everything about this place appeared new and fresh. I entered the elevator alone and pushed the silver and black button that read the number 4.
The doors of the elevator closed slowly and up I went. It was a short ride and before I knew it I was walking along the sparkling clean hallway that eventually led to a sign that had the words Palliative Care Unit on it.
Sure enough, there was another reception area, just as the lady downstairs said there was. At this counter, there was an elderly red-haired lady behind the glass partition. I prepared myself for another dose of ‘love’.
“Good morning,” I said in the most unassuming tone I could.
“I’m here to visit my Father, Barrie Philpott, who has just been admitted.”
The lady said good morning without looking at me. She had her eyes fixed on the terminal in front of her and quickly confirmed that Dad was in bed number 25. To get there, I had to go through the door, turn right and walk halfway down the hallway.
I thanked the efficient lady and entered the Palliative Care Unit for the first time.
As I walked down the dark and very cold feeling hallway, I tried not to look into any other rooms. At one point, my eyes glanced to the left and I saw a woman sitting beside a bed.
She was holding a man’s hand and she was crying.
Oh my god, I thought, this is going to be hell.
I tried to pump myself up knowing Dad was going to need plenty of positive energy.
I arrived at number 25 and walked through what was an open door. I was greeted by a sight that hit a few nerves.
The room had two single beds in it and was facing an outdoor courtyard.
Then there was Dad. He was sitting on the bed with his legs on the ground, just starring outside. There was no one else in the room.
“Dad,” I said as I walked in.
Dad turned and saw me coming in.
“There is nobody here with you,” I stated the obvious.
“No. The nurse has just gone to get something and she will be back,” Dad replied.
I walked over to him and felt his arm. He was freezing.
“Come on, let’s get you into bed,” I told him.
“I want to go to the toilet,” he said, barely audible. “But I can’t walk there.”
I went into the bathroom and found a commode. It’s an unsightly thing on a normal day, yet in this situation, a chair with a toilet attached was a blessing.
I wheeled it over to Dad. He was too weak to stand up so I lifted him so he could position himself on the commode.
I wheeled Dad towards the bathroom so he could get some privacy. As I did, the nurse came back into the room.
“Oh, do you need some help?” she asked.
“No thanks. I will help my Dad,” I replied and continued.
I positioned Dad under the light in the toilet and told him I would be back in a minute. He thanked me.
I closed the door behind me and then introduced myself to the nurse.
“I’m Mark, Barrie’s son.”
“Hi, Mark! I’m Janet, I’m your Dad’s nurse on day shift today.”
“Hi, Janet. It would be good to get the rundown on this place so we know what’s going,” I suggested.
“Sure, shall I wait for your Dad to come back?”
‘No, best to let me know and I will pass things on,” I replied.
Janet shared that because Dad wasn’t on any medication, they obviously wouldn’t be administering anything unless he had pain, for which they would give him some pain management solutions.
She pointed out to the courtyard and said that since Dad’s bed had wheels, he could go outside for as long as he wants on nice days. There were some lovely trees and the courtyard looked like a Japanese Garden, but, well, let’s say Australian style.
I heard Dad call.
Oddly enough, Janet didn’t offer to help, so I went back into the bathroom to help Dad regain his dignity. After we had cleaned up, I wheeled Dad back out into his room proper.
Dad said that he was tired so I lifted him from the chair and helped him get into bed. When I lifted him this time, I noticed how he felt so much lighter. Dad used to be around 70 kilos when he was healthy. He must’ve lost about 10 to 15 kilos since.
He was also so much weaker. I asked Janet for some extra blankets as Dad was shivering.
Once Dad was in bed, Janet left and said we could ‘buzz’ her should we need anything. I gave Dad the buzzer and told him that he could press it if he wanted to call the nurse as I needed to go down to the car to get my suitcase.
As soon as I got to the car, I sat down and cried my eyes out. It all hit me, a tsunami of emotions. I’m not sure exactly what it was; the move to this place, seeing my father in that state on a commode in a sterile cold dark bathroom in a palliative care ward - all of it was too much to handle.
This is what his life had come down to, folks. I was sad on so many fronts. I had heard Dad laugh and joke over the years that he wished he would die either on the golf course or on the lawn bowls green when his time came. One of those wishes nearly came true when he suffered an attack at bowls one afternoon. Luckily, he survived that.
Now here he was, day nineteen in the hospital, struggling through each day, just going downhill toward the final checkered flag. At the end of this race, there were no medals, no cash handouts, no gratitude pins. None of us knows what awaits us when we finally arrive there.
I sobbed into my shirt sleeve in the car. I let it all out. I couldn’t stand to see this man suffer anymore. I didn’t want to see him become a vegetable, a weak frail man, someone I didn’t recognise. Unfortunately, that was exactly what he was becoming.
I had a pounding headache. I was tired. I felt so alone, and perhaps depressed - no, I was depressed. Yet, weirdly enough, I was also energised in some crazy way. I didn’t want to be weak or negative in front of Dad.
I took a few more minutes in the car. I found a small pack of tissues in the glove department and tried to clean up my face. I took my suitcase and made my way back to the hospital.
Back in the room, Dad was fast asleep.
I imagined that the heavy load of the whole situation had also taken its toll on him. He had just been physically moved from the other hospital to another, and there was also an emotional impact that he must be facing. He wasn’t going to say what he felt, but I could only imagine it had been immense pressure.
I put my things away, laid down on my single bed that was just a meter apart from Dad’s and it wasn’t long before I also fell asleep.
I woke up to the sound of people talking. Dad and Janet the nurse were chatting and Dad had Janet already laughing about something. As I stirred over and started to get up, I heard dad say “sleeping beauty is awake”.
I mustered a smile. I noticed that the sun was streaming in the window. I looked at the clock on the wall and it read 1.45 pm.
I had a good few hours kip. I felt better.
Janet left and I had my first chance to check on Dad.
“So, how you going, Dad?”
“Yeah ok, I feel better after that sleep.”
“Likewise,” I replied.
“Are you hungry?” I enquired.
“No, I am good.”
I, on the other hand, was starving.
I went in search of some food. I figured it was going to be tough to get my hands on fish and chips in this place, but not impossible. On this seek and destroy mission though, a chicken wrap from the cafeteria downstairs would have to do.
I gobbled it down and returned to Dad. I didn’t want to leave him alone for too long.
When I returned, he was asleep again. He was getting weaker and weaker before my eyes and not even food was exciting him anymore. When it came mealtime, he screwed his nose at it and more or less refused to eat.
His appetite had been significantly decreasing over the past few days but now he seemed to have lost it altogether.
I turned the television on around 6 pm and tried to get Dad interested in something. It wasn’t long before we were both perched upon our beds watching tennis. The Australian Open had commenced - the first Grand Slam tennis tournament of the year - and Dad was happy to sit and watch match after match, sometimes switching between cricket and tennis games.
By 9 pm Dad’s battery had run dry, and he was snoring before I could ask him if he wanted to go to the bathroom. He ended up waking up around midnight which would become a regular thing nearly to the end.
The next day, we both woke up around 7 am. It was nicer waking up in this room compared to the previous hospital only because we had the courtyard view. That was the end of the pleasantries. There was nothing else to like about this place.
It was sterile, cold, and sad. Each time I walked down the hallway, I saw families grieving. People were being wheeled in and out, they didn’t seem to last long here. Dad’s stay was already considered long - even though it was just day two.
Mum visited and stayed a while some days but I could tell she couldn’t handle much of it. It was sad to see Dad knowing the effect his appearance was having on her, and it must have been doubly hard for him to deal with that. Fifty plus years of marriage must have meant something to them both. But what would I know, I wasn’t around for most of it.
On the second night, some scary stuff started to happen. Dad started to have bad nightmares. So bad, they woke me up from deep sleep and worried me. He was going through something traumatic. I didn’t know what to do, to wake him up or to let him ride them out. I decided to let him fall back to sleep.
I asked him the next morning but he said he didn’t remember anything and said he had slept well.
I was starting to feel very uncomfortable. It felt like we were getting closer to the end. I didn’t know what the end would look like. During the day, Dad seemed okay, he was tired and now unable to walk and he continued to lose weight at an alarming rate, but he was still there and with it.
Was I not noticing the downhill spiral as quickly as others were because I was there 24x7? Was I seeing things differently? Was I delusional to hope that Dad was going to miraculously walk out of this hospital soon?
On the third morning at the Palliative Care ward, Dad asked me to wheel him outside. He wanted to feel the sun. I complied and, soon enough, he and his bed were outside - and it was a glorious day.
The courtyard’s shade was such that it didn’t put us under direct sunlight yet the warm summer temperature was pleasing to Dad’s fragile body. He still had blankets on him and just lay in his bed looking skyward.
Visitors here were limited to close family only so Dad wasn’t spending much time entertaining people. When he did get visitors, I would often vanish downstairs to give myself a break and also let Dad have a break from me.
In the two days since we arrived in this new place, Dad had started to open up a bit. We had some conversations that evolved into the journey of life and what it all meant. But I wasn’t prepared for what was to come and how that would impact me.
On this day, the sun had almost set. Mum and my sister had long left, and Dad and I were enjoying the late afternoon outside. The place was eerily quiet and I could almost hear my heart beating. I asked Dad how he was.
“I’m not so good, Mark,” came his reply.
This is was the first admission from the man in over eighty years that he was indeed feeling weak.
“Can I get you something?” I asked, not knowing what else to say.
“No, thanks,” the wall had gone back up.
“Do you have pain somewhere?” I pushed.
It was like getting blood from a stone.
“Is it your heart?” I persisted.
“No, all over. I just don’t feel well,” he finally said.
With the fading light and the recent paleness of his skin, it was hard to be sure what was making his face look different.
I noticed his eyes had sunken further into his face, and now black rings appeared around them. His hands had become claw-like. Life, it seemed, was being sucked from my father’s soul.
I feared that his mind was giving up. Coupled with his resistance to food, I could feel that his end would be near.
Later that night, someone had brought in a Pavlova dessert and I enticed Dad to share some with me while we watch tennis. The combination of the sugar in the Pavlova and Roger Federer’s playing temporarily heightened Dad’s energy levels again.
He lasted till the match ended around 10.30 pm, a grand effort considering his track record of late.
As we were both falling asleep on our beds after we had endured another bathroom episode, I turned my head towards Dad’s bed. He lay on his back, looking up at the ceiling.
His head remained still, looking at the ceiling.
“Yes,” the single word reply came.
“Dad, I love you.”
It was the first time in my life that I told my father that I loved him. It had taken me fifty-plus years to say this.
Without moving his eyes from the ceiling, he replied:
“I love you too.”
I had never heard those words spoken from my father’s mouth before. Never in my entire life.
I lay frozen, not knowing what to say or do next. I waited. Nothing happened.
That was it; the biggest moment in my life with my father, a watershed moment followed by earth-shattering silence. It was so quiet in that room that I could hear him breathing, and at that moment, to me, that was the second-best sound in the room.
I fixed my gaze at that ceiling, just like Dad. Here we were, father and son, a meter apart in a Palliative Care ward in an Australian hospital, having a moment like never before.
A while later, I heard another sound. Dad was snoring.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t sleep. What had that moment meant?
I didn’t know. I was shocked, surprised and I was stunned that I had told him that, but that was exactly what I felt at the time: I loved my father.
Tomorrow would be another day, or so I hoped.