The call came in at two fifteen in the ante merīdiem, more or less thirty minutes after I drifted off to sleep. Thirty minutes of sleep that accomplished nothing following the day’s trek back home.
“Get to the hospital. Now.” The exact words have since blurred into the distance, an unimportant tidbit lost in a sea of tidbits. But the crux of the message was exactly thus: I had to get to the hospital. Now.
The previous day, Dad called. I was the last person on his list. A list of goodbyes; a list of loved ones that he needed some form of closure with. We spoke. We chatted. We had a jolly old time. We didn’t say goodbye; we didn’t get closure. Instead, the effort of forming words grew too difficult for him. His morning of goodbyes had drained him to the point of no longer being able utter that simple compound. Not physically, not emotionally.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said.
“How nice” was his very un-Dadlike response. No humour, no reaction to me embarking on a journey for one last visit with him. “How nice.”
The old man was fading. Cancer, the wretched enemy he had been fighting for many years — including many years longer than the doctors thought possible — was winning the war, this literal battle of life and death. A stubborn old man to the very end, Dad continued to fight this war. He had managed to claim some victories in this war of his, but he suffered many more losses.
That jolly old time was the last conversation we shared.
I was leaving the afternoon of that conversation, giving me enough time to return home and say goodbye. To spend a few days with Dad while his lifeforce was still contained within his body.
How do you say goodbye, I wondered throughout the journey. How do you have that conversation with the strongest man you know, a man still determined to win the war? How do you say goodbye to a man acting like he’s some kind of superhero pulling that last-minute Hail Mary out of his arse during that computer generated climax, and wouldn’t entertain the notion that, somehow, he could lose?
I couldn’t admit it at the time, but at two fifteen, I realised you simply do not have that conversation: not when it is too late.
Upon arriving at the hospital, I swapped facemasks. I swapped from the comfortable, sexy, all-black little number that was covering my mouth and nose to the uncomfortable, disposable mask courtesy of the hospital — in the age of COVID-19, you can’t be too careful, after all.
The palliative nurse told me that Dad had been distressed. So distressed, in fact, that he had escaped his bed. Upon this triumphant escape, he somehow made it all the way to the floor…with a mighty thud as his body collapsed against it. The crash didn’t prevent him from making it any further. No, the cancer managed to do that all on its own — what a clever disease.
“Hi Dad,” I managed to muster, “How are you?”
I knew he wasn’t able to answer me — the man was unconscious, each pained breath moving in and out of his lungs as quickly as a stoned snail, while still managing to wreak as much havoc as a rhinoceros on speed — but I still waited for a response. I heard a grunt, and maybe — just maybe — he was about to answer. He didn’t; he simply inhaled air into his lungs. What felt like hours later, I heard a groan, and again, hopefully, he was about to answer. He didn’t; he simply exhaled that air back into the room.
There was no answer; just deafening silence, broken only by the breaths he forced himself to breathe, breaths that hurt him each time. Each. And. Every. Fucking. Time.
Some seven hours later, visiting hours started. The silence had already been broken by my words, first chatting to him about his grandchildren, then about the flight, then about whatever came to mind. There were lots of “I love you”s, and even a few “I’ll miss you”s. Soon, whatever silence remained was drowned out by all the visitors to the palliative ward; no longer a place of solitude, but a buzzing metropolis of activity.
Through the hustle bustle, my thoughts wandered to the families, friends and spiritual leaders, each of them visiting to say goodbye to their parents, their cousins, their colleagues and their parishioners: to all the people dealing with the impending losses caused by this insidious disease. To all the people fighting their last battle in this war against their very own cells; the war they have clearly lost as they wait for their body to do what it must, and raise the white flag.
My thoughts began to wander further. To dreams aching to make their way out as I fought to keep myself as awake as humanly possible, to be there for Dad, as I began to resent that half hour of sleep that my body was somehow telling me was now a priority.
A further three hours later, Dad’s eyes shot open.
“Hi,” I said, knowing full-well that he was not able to answer. This knowledge, however, didn’t stop my heart from breaking for him when he didn’t.
As my heart skipped a couple of beats as it split into two, he sat up. He looked at me, and then at his surroundings, including the map on the wall that in previous days, he was convinced was Donald Trump, a man I would have gladly handed to the Reaper in exchange for my dad. He was a man possessed, like King Kong awakening after his forced removal from Skull Island. In the time it took for my heart to skip those beats and split open, the mighty Kong shot up from the bed, ready to embark on his rampage, clearing a path through New York so he can make his way to the island he calls home.
Instinctively, I pinned him back to the bed. This wasn’t a mighty battle of Godzilla vs Kong: only a concerned son vs what remains of his father. And almost instantly, King Kong was, once again, fast asleep.
With relaxants now coursing through his veins, the once mighty Kong was forced into a relaxing slumber, as the nurses shifted his body and pillows in an attempt to make him comfortable. And throughout those intervening hours, they made Dad comfortable again. And again, and again, and yet again.
But as the relaxants kept Dad asleep, my body continued to try and do the same to me. Thanks to that half hour of sleep, my body mistakenly believed that sleep was some kind of priority, that it was something I needed. It wasn’t.
“You should go, get some sleep,” a nurse would tell me.
“You should stay here,” another would say.
“Actually,” said one more, “I don’t know what you should do. He has anywhere between hours and days.”
As much as my body refused to acknowledge it, that comfortable bed was anywhere between hours and days away. I didn’t need sleep; I needed my Dad. My body was going to have to wait, whether it liked it or not (and it made it clear that it did not like this situation; it didn’t like it at all).
Dinnertime came, and dinnertime went. Oblivious, I was still holding Dad’s hand; I was still talking the warrior through his final battle. I told him how much I love him; how much he’ll be missed. I told him that when he leaves the mortal coil, everything will be okay. I felt like Bane staring down the Dark Knight, telling him he has my permission to die. I should have added the Bane voice: even if Dad couldn’t physically laugh, he would have chuckled on the inside.
The nurses finally convinced me to eat, and brought me some dinner: a cheese and tomato sandwich. It was okay, I assume; the food felt empty, providing no sustenance, and doing nothing to fill the void left by the impending loss. And the tomato was nowhere near as enjoyable as the ones my dad had been growing in those heady days before palliative care.
The food did, however, give me the opportunity to briefly remove my mask and relieve its sting, thanks to a hospital budget focused on keeping my dad comfortable, instead of providing a mask that didn’t do its best to slowly slice my ears from my head. The mask’s sadistic attempt at removing my ears, sadly, was nothing compared to my dad’s lungs fighting to keep some air flowing, each breath getting slower, each gasp becoming more and more pained. The grimace under my mask was nothing compared to the wretched pain written over his face.
Hours later, I missed the Reaper.
I missed the opportunity to make him pinky swear to look after Dad on the next step of his journey.
Twenty-four hours after I made it to the hospital, my body forced me to sleep, pushing those scattered dreams to the forefront of my consciousness, for just a few short minutes. Twenty-four hours after I reached the hospital, after having spent a day with his son, the baby he nursed forty plus years ago was now asleep. And during those few short minutes, Dad was finally able to leave my side.
All that came next was a blur; a flurry of activity of doctors and nurses checking on the lifeless body laying where Dad once was.
“We need to straighten the body,” I was told. “Straighten the body,” odd words echoing through my ears as I was escorted from his room.
“Straighten the body,” “straighten the body,” “straighten the body,” a constant loop playing through my head as I waited. Eventually, I was allowed to see him, and his body had indeed been straightened: no longer contorted around the pillows designed to give him comfort, there he was, lying on his bed, finally looking comfortable. Finally at peace, and finally out of pain.
“Goodbye,” I finally said to Dad.
And once again, there was no answer. There was only deafening silence.