I was never one for birthdays. Not because I was afraid of my age, I just never had a connection with it nor did I have many happy memories of my birthdays.
The next morning, I rose early. As I snuck out of the room, Dad was still snoring. It was dark outside. I wanted to get down to the lake to enjoy the sunrise and to start the day with a good, healthy feeling inside. Even though I was making some breakthroughs with Dad, I was still feeling pretty emotionally drained.
You know, the kind of drained when you have been in a car by yourself on a super long drive and when you arrive at your destination you feel really spent? Well, that’s how I was feeling.
I was constantly spent: emotionally, physically and spiritually, and as I walked out of the hospital lobby and across the car park to the pathway that would lead me to the lake, I felt that sense of tiredness wash over me again.
I could already feel the heat rising, and even though the sun was yet to show itself, the warm breeze that had meandered its way across thousands of kilometres of Australia’s arid land was proof that it was going to be another hot summer day in the Great Southern land.
There was not much in the way of humanity this morning. I overheard a couple of nurses talking as they crossed the car park, walking in the direction of the nearby railway station. I guessed they had just ended their shift. Another day of caring for and helping people, possibly even saving their lives, had come to a close for them.
I never understood why our society appears so thankless towards people who do such amazing work, while we revere corporate thieves who literally get away with murder.
Day in, day out, hospital workers across the world take care of all of our loved ones. There should be a national day for caregivers of all kinds. There probably is, I just don’t know about it. I guess I’m also to blame for the apathy shown towards this group of amazing people.
After all, prior to this little life experience handed by the universe right now, I was never someone who proactively celebrated hospital staff. Even when I ended up in hospitals many times in my journey across different continents.
Note to self: do something to change this.
I finally reached the entrance to the park that led me to the lake. I passed a woman running and said good morning, but she didn’t reply. Her headphones were on.
I felt the gravel under my feet along the small trail that led to the lake. A couple of birds took flight from a nearby tree as I made a sound that was either too frightening or too loud for them.
The water in the lake was not still like glass this morning. The soft breeze made it ripple. I liked it, and I imagined sitting out in the middle of the lake in a rowboat, feeling it move gently from side to side.
I sat down on a wooden bench. I loved watching the sunrise, the birth of any new day was spectacular, and it breathed life and hope in me that things could be whatever I want them to be on this given day.
As the orange glow came above the horizon, a team of ducks appeared on the lake. They splashed and tossed water on themselves as their beaks went to work all over their torsos.
I heard an ambulance siren. It was coming closer and I thought someone else’s day had not started as well as mine. A tinge of sadness shadowed my moment of orange aided wonder. I quickly returned to the present.
As the sun appeared above the horizon, I witnessed night become dawn, become day. I started to think about Dad and I wondered how many more sunrises he would be around for.
I pondered how my life was going to be after this adventure.
I couldn’t see myself staying in Australia for long. It wasn’t a country I felt connected to. It was a combination of the people and the environment. I had been spoilt while living in Europe for so many years. I loved the seasons, the variety of culturally diverse environments, and the people always kept me on my toes.
I wondered what would be my connection to this particular country after my father. Would my purpose to stay here be over?
I had not come back to Australia because anyone asked me. Both my parents were unwell, not able to cope with daily life, and as the only son, I felt it my duty to do the right thing to return and care for them without hesitation.
I had not expected it to be such turbulent times. It had been difficult for everyone, and I was still feeling that guilt deep inside that perhaps my parents would have been better off without me around.
It was difficult for me, being around two people from a different generation with whom I had nothing in common with. They had their routine, almost like clockwork every day, while I’m always looking for adventure and trouble. The latter I say in jest.
Conversations were always tense and the lack of light-hearted humour and banter did my head in every day. I had very few release valves.
Since my return, I had witnessed my parents experience near-death situations on numerous occasions.
Every time it happened, I think there should be immense grief and worry that I could lose them, yet there wasn’t. It was more like a sense of duty and purpose, again, something I felt I had to do.
I was sure that the lack of intimacy shown to me by my parents had a lot to do with this. When a child is not conditioned to feel love through hugs and cuddles, then there is an avoidant pattern that develops.
I longed for their touch, was jealous of others that had it, yet couldn’t do anything to change it. I was always reminded by my friends, ‘Mark, it is the way it is, and nothing you say or do will change it’.
I remember once when I attempted to hug my mother, she literally took a step back. I never tried again.
As I sat in the park, my mood turned sombre. I realised more and more how dysfunctional my relationship had been with the two people who gave me life. Why did they have me if all they wanted to give me was the cold shoulder?
I was actually a mistake. Born five years after my sister, my mother was told that she couldn’t have more children. Oops, no one told me. When I arrived, boom, just imagine what the mindset of my parents would’ve been; tough one, eh?
There is no doubt about it - being a parent is the most difficult job in the world. A job that comes with no manual other than guide books that remind you how difficult it is. Your life changes and it is not always for the better.
Some people are natural parents, but let’s face it, a lot are not. I often question why many couples have children. I used to run a men’s group and saw time and time again how many men faced issues with their mothers, issues that rolled over into their relationships and marriages.
Then a baby arrives and their issues go from bad to worse. There should be some kind of legislation that all consenting adults need to sort out their own life issues before producing another life into this world.
Many couples I know had a baby thinking it was going to make the issues in their relationship go away. That notion is rather self-centred, selfish and downright wrong.
Then there’s my situation. Born to parents who had obviously switched off their baby radars, and suddenly there I was. A crying, screaming ball of freckled-faced poop bag.
If nothing else, my experience with my parents made me realise many things. The first and perhaps most important was that I was not going to change them, never. The next was that I was adamant that I was not going to change myself as a person because of the environment I was currently in.
I wanted to remain true to myself and a lot of the behaviours I endured during this time in my parents’ home were not behaviours that I aspired to adopt.
I would continue doing what I set out to do and knowing that Dad was nearing the end of his journey made me more determined to try and to get some kind of breakthrough.
Happy Birthday, Mark, I said to myself as the sun finally started its trajectory across the sky. I got to my feet and started my short journey back to the hospital and then to Bed 25.
I walked quietly into the room. Dad was awake.
“Happy Birthday, Mark,” he greeted me as I entered the room.
I asked him how he felt this morning, and he sarcastically replied, “Like I could go for a 10 kilometre run!”
I looked at the frail old man in the bed in front of me. I imagined that even walking 10 steps would be a pipe dream.
I sat in the chair by the window. The sun was behind the hospital building and Dad had no idea of the splendour outside. I wondered if he was even thinking about going outside again, so I asked him.
“Would you like to go outside again today, Dad?”
He showed little interest, instead, he lifted the covers to his chin, indicating he was cold.
“Can I get you another blanket, Dad?”
“Yeah,” his reply was somewhat raspy.
I took the one from my bed, knowing I could replace it later in the day.
I laid it out over him and pulled it up to his chin.
“Thanks,” he muttered.
“How did you sleep last night?” I enquired.
“Ok,” he said.
“Can I get you anything?”
And moments later, he fell asleep again.
I sat and watched him for some time. I didn’t even notice the nurse walk in.
“How’s your Dad, Mark?”
She startled me, but I managed to reply, “He’s pretty tired, I think.”
“Ok, I will leave you be. Just give me a buzz if you need anything,” she said and walked out.
Life had come down to buzzing for anything nowadays. No one wanted to hang around for a chat, pass the time or get to know you more than what their duty called for.
I started becoming certain that this Palliative Ward would not be the last place on earth I would want to see myself in. After all your years of living, you are put into a small room with a buzzer, with a few people coming and going until one day you stop breathing.
To me, that is almost a sin. I would have something elaborate planned for my goodbye to the world. I have no idea what that would be yet, but I can assure you it won’t entail hospital blankets, a commode and a nurse who wants you to buzz her.
As Dad slept, I wondered what was going on inside his body. The medication was long gone, and by the sight of his rapid weight loss and deteriorating appearance, there must be all sorts of nasty things going on inside.
Not once had Dad complained of pain. I was adamant that he was not going to suffer. When we had gone outside in previous days, his weird stretching routine had continued. He would wave his arms around like a windmill and I was often surprised to see how long he could maintain that level of exercise.
I decided to grab something for breakfast from the hospital cafeteria, you know, a birthday treat of sorts. I left Dad to sleep and headed down the hallway like I had done time and time again.
I passed another room where there were more people in tears. Obviously, sometime during the night, another person from Dad’s cohorts had slipped to the ‘other side’. This wasn’t a nice place, and nothing about it was uplifting or positive.
On arriving at the cafeteria, I had some renewed hope. Something smelled good. I ordered baked beans, bacon and eggs, a birthday treat to myself. I also got myself a blueberry smoothie. Consider it an attempt to have a balanced diet.
I sat down and looked up at the huge glass atrium roof. The blue sky was looking grand, with no clouds in sight.
My mind went back to Bed 25 and for a minute I had a gut feeling that this journey wasn’t going to last much longer.
Dad was looking and feeling increasingly weak. His body was shutting down within. He merely nibbled at his food in the last 24 hours. I suspected he wasn’t going to be joining me for a mixed grill at the cafeteria anytime soon.
My intuition told me that I wouldn’t be eating here again either, so I took in the surroundings and noticed some familiar faces around me from the Palliative Care ward. One face was a little more familiar than the rest; it was a guy I chatted with several days before. His name was Roger and he was heading in my direction with his food tray.
“Hey Mark, how you going? Mind if I join you?”
“Sure thing, Roger. How ya going?”
Roger was a male nurse in his mid-thirties and one of those people who never looked sad.
He was full of energy and from what I had seen and heard was the ‘stand out’ guy in the entire ward.
He had a pretty hefty beard, an earring in his left ear and wore a male nurse’s uniform that was a dull green colour.
“So how you going, mate? How’s Dad?”
I liked the fact he didn’t call Dad Barrie, it was like we were mates or something a little less formal.
“Oh, he’s struggling and we are treading water,” I said.
“And how are you, man? How are you coping?”
Oh. My. God. It’s been so long since I met someone who was genuinely concerned about me and my wellbeing.
I couldn’t believe it. Anyone who has spent any time as a full-time caregiver knows exactly how draining it is, and for someone else to recognise that and to give a shit, made my day. Happy Birthday, Mark! I told myself. To think that Roger had no idea it was my birthday, and he wasn’t going to find out.
“Well, Roger, it’s tough, to be honest. I’m obviously not made for this stuff and have second-guessed myself right from the beginning, it’s been brutal,”
I confessed. Roger nodded and started to unwrap his egg and cheese sandwich.
“I hear you, it’s a nasty place for families, this place. There is no escaping the reality of it. I don’t know how you manage to stick around day after day,” Roger replied.
I responded with a single word: “Duty”.
“Yeah, but man it’s not easy, and you were living overseas before all of this happened weren’t you?” he asked.
“I was indeed,” and something inside me wanted to be on the other side of the world right now.
“How do you work in that place man, it must be numbing?” I asked Roger.
Roger took the first bite of his sandwich, giving himself a little time to think about his reply.
“Yeah, it isn’t the most uplifting place to be stationed, but you know what, seeing someone live their final days and to try to have a positive impact on them during that time is somewhat rewarding,”
Roger finally said.
I could hear what Roger was saying but I could also add from experience that the majority of the staff in that ward were just working in the background. They had a ‘just buzz me’ sort of mentality. Roger was different.
“I don’t want to sound morbid or anything but have you thought a lot more about dying and the whole process since you have been coming in here?” Roger continued.
A loaded question I thought, but I was going to dive in boots and all.
“Yeah I sure have, and it’s made me realise how little we think about it. We go about our daily lives, never thinking about how one day that we could be in this very position ourselves and how we would cope and what will it feel like,” I said.
“Exactly! So do you think that’s a good thing?” Roger asked back.
“Oh yeah, it’s been a huge wake-up call for me, like I have gone pretty deep with my thoughts on this. I was only thinking this morning about how I want to have my final chapter written,” I said.
“How’s that?” Roger delved more.
“Well, it won’t be in a place like this. I may end up walking off a cliff, walking into the ocean or just laying down wherever I am and wait for the end. I can’t stand the thought of being in a place like this on my final days,” I admitted.
“Yeah, it’s a tough one, I guess. Everyone has a different perspective and for those who haven’t thought too much about it then it usually sneaks up on them and happens really fast.
Before you know it, wham, you’re here,” Roger added.
I could feel that Roger was trying to perhaps highlight the benefits of Palliative Care, but I wasn’t buying it.
“So, how much longer will you be working in that ward. Are you trying to get stationed somewhere else?” I probed.
“Well, I would really like to go overseas and work for an organisation like Médecins Sans Frontières in a developing nation,” Roger replied.
Roger caught me off guard with that one.
“That’s brilliant! Let me know if I can help. I know people in the organisation in various places and, if nothing else, they can help you understand what the options are,” I offered.
Roger was pumped by my response and for the next fifteen minutes asked me questions about how I knew those people. He became interested to learn of my own time spent in third world countries working on various projects.
By the time Roger had finished his breakfast, mine was long gone. We headed back to the ward together. As I was about to make the turn to head toward Dad’s room, Roger touched me on the shoulder then said, “Stay strong Mark.”
I found a lot of comfort in those three words and my ensuing smile to Roger as I walked away confirmed to him that I appreciated them.
I arrived at the doorway of Dad’s room and wasn’t expecting to see what I saw. Dad was standing in the middle of the room by himself and from what I could see there was no nurse in sight.
“Hey, what are you doing?” I asked. No, I think I shouted.
I was terrified that he could tumble at any second. Dad’s forlorn face looked up in my direction.
“I want to go to the toilet. I buzzed and they didn’t come,” he explained.
I was instantly angry. Roger’s words were still ringing in my ears about this place and here I was confronted by another no-show from the nurses.
First things first, I thought. I wanted to get Dad to the bathroom. Once that was out of the way, I would have a strong word or two at the nurses’ station at the end of the corridor.
Dad was weaker than ever, and his now boney frame reminded me of a picture of men I had seen in concentration camps. His clothes hung from him and, despite being small sized, they were still too large for his frail body.
As I touched Dad’s arms to help him, I was concerned that I would bruise him. He shuffled his feet one after the other and although it was a few short meters to the bathroom, it turned out to be quite an excursion.
Dad went in and sat down. I told him to yell when he was done and I would come and help. I stood outside the door and waited for his call. As I stood there, I noticed a nurse walk past the door.
“Excuse me, nurse,” I called out to her.
No response. A few seconds went past and finally, her head poked around the door frame.
“Yes, can I help you?” she said.
“My Dad wanted to go to the bathroom. He buzzed and nobody came,” I half yelled again.
I emphasised the word ‘buzzed’ as I knew it to be the favourite word in the nurses’ vocabulary.
“Oh, let me check that out,” she replied.
As she said that, I heard Dad call my name. I went back into the bathroom, helped him clean up and start the ultra-marathon trail back to the bed. After what seemed like an eternity, we were there. I had to lift Dad on to the bed and lie him gently on his back.
As I was doing that, I caught the eye of the nurse who was tidying things up around the other side of the bed.
She was holding the remote control unit for the TV in her hand. The buzzer for attention remained hung firmly on the hook beside the bed. It appeared that Dad had tried to buzz the nurses using the remote control.
I smiled at the nurse and then apologised.
I ratted on myself again for not coming back from breakfast sooner. What if Dad had fallen on my watch? What if he had hit his head? Oh no, I can’t do that again.
With Dad back in bed, it was time to resume full-time watch.
My birthday treats were well and truly over.