The sun rose early that summertime morning, heating the atmosphere. If anyone wanted to venture outside, it was best to do so before 9 am.
I woke up early and decided to take a walk away from the hospital grounds around the local neighbourhood. I found a park by a lake. There, I sat on a wooden bench overlooking the mirrored glass water.
It was a great morning to be alive. Then again, wasn’t every morning a great morning to be alive? If nothing else, this entire journey was teaching me the importance of every day.
It’s always easier to complain, and yet there is so much to be grateful for. Life can be hard for many, I get that, but surely the whole idea of the human spirit is to push on and to make life as good as it can be for yourself and your loved ones.
I had witnessed many moments when life can be very easily sucked away and ended. It often comes when you least expect it, but then again do we ever expect death to happen to us?
We spend so much time during our lives not speaking or thinking about death. Why is that?
Is it because it is too dark a subject for many to discuss? Is it too much of an unknown to us all: when life ends, what happens?
Some believe in reincarnation, some have other beliefs. I like to think that something good happens after the life we live on earth. What that is, I have no idea. There is just this grand notion in my mind that there is something pleasant waiting for us all when we expire here.
I remember when I was living in Singapore, I went along to a workshop session at a university one weekend. The workshop was called The Art of Dying. I had seen the event advertised in a cafe in the city where I frequented. The title of the workshop intrigued me, so I signed up and went along.
When I arrived at the event, I was surprised to see so many people in attendance. People from all walks of life, age groups, and ethnicities. I found the whole experience amazing.
Have you ever sat in an auditorium where people shared their deepest thoughts about dying?
It was uplifting in so many ways, listening to people share about joy, life, and the memories they had created. So many of them were okay with the thought that life would come to an end one day. Why try to lengthen life and spend so much money on trying to delay the inevitable?
In the event, we talked about destiny, and whether or not people believed that everything was part of the master plan. That our life’s course was already mapped out before we were born.
I was fascinated to hear people from countries like India, China, and even Mongolia talk about death in a way that was foreign yet beautiful to me. It gave life a whole new meaning, and I recognised that death was just another chapter of the journey.
As I sat there and watched two ducks come in for a perfect landing on the lake in front of me, my mind rushed back to my father. Dad was laying in his bed and he was facing the last chapter of this journey. I had grown accustomed to having him there every morning when we woke up and every night when we went to sleep.
I had become used to having someone watch tennis with me, eat, and then fall asleep near me.
I had taken all of this for granted. I had not allowed myself to think that it will all end soon and life would take another course for me. There was a lot of ego and selfishness in my thoughts and before I let that mindset run wild, I hauled it back in and thought instead of
Dad and his emotions.
He was probably afraid, alone, and vulnerable right now, even with me there all of the time. I was confident that inside his heart, there was a battle raging.
How was he really coping?
What was he truly thinking?
How did his body really feel?
The only way to find out was to ask him. I was going to try and dig deep. I needed and wanted to know so much about what and how he was feeling at this time in his life. In some weird way, I wanted to prepare myself.
It was really beautiful at the lake. As I sat there, I realised how little I had been engaging in the outside world for quite some time. My life mainly consisted of hospital visits and conversations around all things medical. There had been few breaks, during which I just wanted to chill.
I tried to keep a physical training regime going, but my heart wasn’t in it and my attraction to comfort food had resulted in me piling on some weight.
You’d think when you’re caring for others and watching their health decline, you would be more conscious about your own well-being. In my case, it was the opposite: this was turning into perhaps one of the unhealthiest periods of my life.
I watched two ducks drift around the lake in front of me. They were so elegant on the outside, and yet their little legs worked so hard under the water to propel them forward.
They would zip one way and then the other with such precision, much like Roger Federer had the night before on the tennis court in Melbourne. An effortless genius, an unequalled talent: yes, these ducks reminded me of him.
After another twenty minutes of sitting in this idyllic spot, I felt the sun starting to burn my face. It was time to head back inside. I wanted to see if Dad was awake, and more importantly, how he was feeling.
As I walked back toward the hospital, I rehearsed what, how, and when I was going to ask him questions. By the time I reached the big atrium of the hospital, I had rehearsed my speech a few times. I was ready.
I took the elevator back up to the Palliative Care Unit and walked along the seemingly endless hallway before I passed the reception, turned right, and headed to room 25.
As I walked in, I was greeted by a nurse on her way out. She gestured to me to be quiet. Dad was still asleep. It was 9.45 am and this was unusual. The nurse motioned me to follow her outside. I did.
Once out in the sterile cold, tiled hallway she said, “You must be Mark. I’m Christie, your Dad’s nurse today.”
“Look, your Dad buzzed out about half an hour ago. He wanted to go to the bathroom, so I helped him with that, then he wanted to go back to bed. He fell asleep about ten minutes ago,” she narrated.
“OK, great. Thanks, Christie for helping out,” I said.
She asked if I was okay, and I confirmed I was. I told her I was going to go back inside and sit with Dad.
“Just let me know if you need anything, Mark.”
“Will do, thank you again,” I was grateful.
I walked back inside, closed the door behind me and went over to my bed. I lay down and looked across at Dad. He really had knocked out. He looked so pale and his arms were holding the blankets right up under his chin as he slept.
Imagine a child holding up a blanket when he or she is scared to keep out imaginary demons from getting them in their bed. I wondered what demons Dad was trying to keep out.
I noticed that Dad’s breathing had become shallower and that the black rings around his eyes were more pronounced than they had been the previous day.
I turned back to stare at the ceiling and it wasn’t too long before I nodded off again.
I awoke sometime later to find Dad watching TV with the sound turned down. He glanced over when he saw me stir.
“Good afternoon, son,” I heard him say.
A term of endearment. Dad had never bestowed me with a nickname, he wasn’t the type of person who did that. I was always ‘Mark’. He was always very formal, even with his friends at the bowls club. He never called them anything untoward.
“Afternoon? It can’t be,” I said in somewhat of a shock.
I looked up at the clock on the wall. It was 11.20 am. I had been asleep for over an hour. A power nap, one could say, and it had felt good.
I looked at Dad.
“How are you feeling, Dad?”
“Yeah, not too bad.”
Another lie, I assumed.
“Can I get you something to eat?”
I already knew the answer but I thought I would try anyway.
“No, I don’t feel like anything.”
I went over to the bar sized fridge in the room and opened it to check where our snack inventory stood. Each time my mother and sister visited, they topped it up with things Dad and wouldn’t usually look care about.
There were some packet apple and orange drinks and I asked Dad if he wanted one of those. The cup of water beside his bed was still full to the brim, so this was my attempt to get some liquid into his diet.
To my surprise, he said yes. I ripped the little straw open and poked it through the tiny hole in the top. I placed it next to the cup of water on the table that straddled Dad’s bed so it was easy for him to reach.
On the table sat the book he was reading, although he had stopped for a while, the cup of water, the TV remote control and the buzzer for the nurse.
That was it. If you looked in the small wardrobe in the room, there were a pair of pants, a set of tops and a pair of slippers. That was it. These were the only possessions that my father had these days outside of his toiletries bag in the bathroom.
This is what materialism had come down too. The absolute bare essentials. The days of golf clubs, lawn bowls, cars and plenty else were all now things of the past. Life had come back to the very basics as it was when it had started for him over eighty years before.
Today was January 19th, significant for little other than the fact that it was my birthday the next day. It was certainly not a time to celebrate.
“Any plans for your birthday tomorrow?” Dad asked.
“Nope, just another day,” I replied.
I am not one to make a fuss about birthdays, Christmas or any celebrations in general. A lot of that had come from the dysfunctional family life I faced since childhood.
When I lived overseas, birthdays came and went without much fanfare. Other than the occasional dinner with friends, my birthdays were mostly spent working and traveling.
It felt the same for me this year; just another day.
I moved quickly to change the subject.
“Would you like to go outside again today, Dad?”
“Yeah, that would be good.”
“We should maybe wait for the afternoon sun to go from the courtyard and then head out,” I suggested, knowing it was going to be way too hot for him during this part of the day.
As his attention wasn’t really on the television, since the volume was still low, I thought it was a good time to strike with my well-prepared questions. I started.
“So dad, we have been here for a couple of days. How are you feeling in general?”
“Not so good, really. I’m pretty tired and don’t have much energy,” Dad replied, surprising me with his candor.
“Yes, you should try and eat and drink some more. That’s where you will get your energy from,” I suggested in turn.
I imagined us having this conversation the other way around when I was a kid. Dad trying to get me to eat my vegetables, telling me that I would grow up to be a strong man if I did. Life has come full circle.
“Will you try and eat a bit of dinner tonight?” I asked him.
Dad just nodded, not exactly a sign of a strong commitment.
“Would you like me to go and get you something in particular?” I pushed. Whatever the hospital prepared for him wasn’t exactly attractive.
“No,” he replied.
Later that afternoon, Mum and my sister visited. They brought some soup with them. Dad agreed to eat it along with the leftover Pavlova in the fridge.
Before eating, we spent a couple of hours outside in the courtyard. I started to see resounding changes in Dad’s habits and behaviours. On this day, he chose to sit in a chair outside rather than be on his bed.
With the help of the nurse, we made him as comfortable as we could. He had two blankets wrapped all the way down to his feet. It was still 27c / 81F outside as we sat there, yet here he was feeling the cold.
As he sat in the chair, he would from time to time raise his arms above his head and stretch.
An unusual motion; I had never seen my father do in his entire life. Every time he did this, he would let out a huge puff after.
“Are you okay, Dad? I checked.
“Just stretching,” came his answer.
Since he started to talk, I asked him what he missed the most.
“I miss going to bowls.”
Even though I expected that answer, his response almost broke my heart. To once again hear him speak of his happy place, and knowing that he would never return to his beloved bowls club. Not alive anyway.
I wished there was a way I could take him there one last time. Yet even my own crazy ability to scheme up the impossible, I didn’t think this would be a good idea, both for Dad and for those who would see him there.
It would remain a dream.
I asked the obvious just to keep the communication going.
“What do you miss the most about the bowls club?”
A reply that once again had me fighting back tears.
When the end of life is nigh, we often feel alone and isolated. There are many times throughout our lives that we feel this way, but even more so during the final stage when we are physically unable to do the things we would love to.
I decided to change the direction of the conversation.
“Dad, do you have any pain?”
Although that sounded good, yet it was also incredible that he had no pain. He was obviously going downhill. All of his medication had been shut off days ago, yet he didn’t complain of any pain at all. It was truly a blessing. The last thing I wanted was to think that Dad was in pain.
I continued to try and pry open the door.
“Have you enjoyed your life Dad?”
I went a little deeper on this one. I wanted to see if I could get him to reflect and assess where his headspace truly was.
“Yes, sure. I was happy to leave New Zealand and to come to live in Australia,” he admitted.
This surprised me. Dad had been very reluctant to give up his life in New Zealand. Mum had been the main driver of the move to Australia. She always said how difficult it had been to get Dad to move.
I suspected that there was a common denominator at play. Dad had played golf regularly and he had been reluctant to leave his mates in New Zealand behind. But to his credit, he had done it and had made new friends here.
“I am very thankful to you and your sister Sandra for taking your mother and me around to different places in the world to show us,” he continued.
This was the first time I heard appreciation for something I had done for them in a one on one conversation. It made me feel a little proud.
“I am very proud of what you have done with your life, those charity work and things,” Dad said as if validating the little moment of pride I had in my mind.
This one got me. It was the first time I had received any acknowledgement from my father about anything I had done in the way of work etc. I had taken Mum and Dad to Cambodia to show them a project I had worked on through my organisation some years before. At that time, I thought it was a mistake, yet some years later their collective reflection had left me surprised.
This was starting to turn out to be a watershed afternoon between Dad and me.
I had never heard him open up about anything about his life.
I wanted more. So I went for the jugular.
“Are you happy in your marriage Dad?” I asked.
Dad looked around the courtyard.
“For the most part, yes. Your Mother is a good woman, Mark,” he replied after a few moments of silence.
The use of my name in a formal manner did not go unnoticed. It was both a diplomatic and political response, I gathered, and I decided to leave it at that. I could tell Dad didn’t want to go down that path.
I had always seen my parents’ marriage as a somewhat dysfunctional and unconvincing arrangement. I rarely witnessed any loving and intimate behaviour between them. Whenever my father would approach my mother to kiss her or show some sign of intimacy, he would be warded off with some kind of ridiculed gesture.
I had noticed this from a young age. I saw how my school friends often received hugs or high fives from their parents when they were dropped off or picked up. I had none of that.
I struggled with this for years. I also think it was a reason why I was so limited in my relationships. I often caught myself mirroring my mother’s patterns when it came to intimacy. I was, however, fortunate to have partners throughout my life who helped me overcome this.
Those early years when we are all so impressionable truly have a lasting impact. I believe to this very day that so many grown men around the world have not dealt with this. Many cases of domestic violence in today’s society are attributed to this distant and avoidant behaviour that is rampant in homes across the world.
Back in my reality, I wanted so desperately to keep this conversation with Dad alive. I knew exactly what I could ask next to do just that.
“Dad, do you think you could’ve been an All Black?” I smiled as I asked this.
Again another lengthy pause while Dad’s mind rushed back to the 1960s. He pondered. I was sure that nobody had ever asked him in his life.
“Well,” he started, only to pause again.
“At the time of meeting your mother, I was at the prime of my life when it came to rugby. I had been picked to play in the provincial side on the wing. I guess I decided it was more important to chase your mother than my rugby dream,” he confessed.
“What was that dream, Dad?”
“Well, to be an All Black of course!”
The All Blacks are the most revered and successful rugby team in the world. As a boy from New Zealand, it is almost a right of passage to try to become an All Black. Our tiny nation has great pride in our sporting team and it has been the dream ambition for many Kiwi men.
It was sad to hear that my father’s dream of becoming an All Black didn’t happen. I had heard many a time from those around him that he had the talent and the speed to make it happen. He couldn’t commit, but I didn’t know it was because he chose marriage at the time.
I wonder to this very day if this shattered dream made him, in some small way, resentful to have children. At a time in his life when there were bigger dreams and goals, he was changing dirty nappies and tending to crying babies.
We often give up our dreams and goals. This was another interesting insight we get when we arrive at our final chapter and look back and see the sliding doors close.
Do we live with regret or do we arrive knowing that we gave everything a go and did it to the best of our ability?
Have we been all in?
Dad was getting tired and I could see that my questions were also having an emotional impact. I was happy, though, as the door to his life had been a little ajar for me today and he had been prepared to walk through it.
I wanted more and started to plan my questions for tomorrow. I looked forward to this daily opportunity with Dad, outside in the courtyard, him and me, and the late afternoon sun.
The nurse came to help me get Dad back into bed. He was again snug and warm as he had his soup for dinner, which he finished. I succumbed to the dry hospital chicken with steamed veggies and we quickly demolished the Pavlova together for dessert.
We then switched our attention to tennis. It was a little after 9 pm when I heard Dad’s breathing transition from normal to a deep heavy snore.
It had been a good day. From my morning at the lakeside watching the ducks to having a conversation with Dad that I would remember forever. Tomorrow was my birthday, no big deal.
The only present I did want was another man-to-man chat with Dad. As I lay down and waited for my own eyes to close, I hoped that I could achieve the same success again tomorrow.
I remember feeling a smile on my face as I drifted off to dreamland.