So the Doctor said that Dad only has about two weeks to live.
When I got that message from my mother a few months ago, it was amazing how strongly it hit me. I had been anticipating this literally for years. Dad had been sick for over a decade. He had undergone 4 bypasses, a pacemaker implant, his liver was this hard lump protruding through his abdomen and he was a double amputee – over a series of 4 operations, his legs were removed. It had been so scary for so long that we took our honeymoon in Austria three years before, where Dad had been stuck since he moved back and got too ill to return.
It had really felt like I had been prepared for the end.
And then when my Mum called me and said that Dad had so little time to live, it taught me once again, just how little I understand about myself. Because what I started to realise, was that grief is like a series of those Russian nesting dolls. You peel away and emote and reason, and there’s always more inside. And you feel the way that smaller doll must. Diminished, small and more helpless than before. You don’t fit into the world and your life properly anymore.
And all that time I had spent telling others that I was prepared for it, that it would be a relief when his suffering was over, seemed like nothing but empty bravado. He wasn’t yet dead, only dying and already my grief seemed to explode out, raw and messy again. But I only cried a little bit at that stage. But inside I was a mess.
So I jumped on a plane and went to say my goodbyes, and suddenly on that trip I felt this bizarre sense of optimism. I was excited, I was flying across the world to provide comfort to my father. I rather anticipated it would look like the scene at the end of the movie Big Fish.
When I got there in the afternoon, everything was this strange jumble of experiences. I was back in our village, where I had spent my teenage years. Dad was in the hospital, and we would visit the next day. I had arrived two days after I first got the message – just enough time to sort out the minutiae of my life before going to be there for my father’s death. And being ‘home’ I found myself finding the most unusual series of emotions. At this close range to Dad’s death, I am all too aware that my capacity for analysis is compromised. But the feelings were easy to categorise. Anger, sadness and excitement made up my emotional state.
Excitement might seem an odd choice, but I should clarify. I did not feel excitement at my father’s suffering, or anything like that. It was simply a privilege to be able to be home, to resolve issues with my father, and speak with a candour I had previously found impossible. It was exciting to go to Vienna or into the forest and be a tourist. I didn’t do these things lightly- on the contrary, I lived my life with an intensity I have never really felt before, over such a long time. I could feel all our mortality reflected in my father’s, and my natural inertia evaporated. I suppose my grief gave my life at that time an intensity unmatched by anything I have ever experienced before or since.
And yet under it all was that feeling of being a little matryoshka doll, and that I was soft and vulnerable, the way a crab must feel when it drops its old shell and hides until the new skin hardens again. And perhaps that’s the source of exhaustion in grieving, at least for someone like myself. It’s not like the movies, where it’s the crying that wears a person out, but the frantic intensity of living that is the hard part of grief. We rail against the world and God for allowing this to happen, we are flooded with the memories of all the love and joy we have shared with the dying, we try to eke out the best of those moments to make up for the millions of times we didn’t come around for dinner, didn’t call or answer the phone, chose to do our own thing as younger people for whom the world was infinite and unchanging.
And in that time spent realising that I had all the wrong expectations of my response to the fact of Dad’s dying, before he had passed, one evening I sat looking out over a field in the darkening evensong of an Austrian evening. Dad was at home, nursed to an uneasy shuddering sleep on a rug of morphine. Before me rose the Alps, and in the field below two deer grazed as a hare ran crazily through the wheat stubble. I watched this simple beauty unfold, and realised that soon Dad would die, and that another layer would be peeled away , that I was never going to be prepared. And simultaneously I wanted to both rush that moment onward, but stay in that field until the end of all things, so that time would never march on, and he would never have to leave me.
But in the end I got up, and walked home to kiss my sleeping father goodnight and say;
‘Goodbye. I love you.”
“And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure . . . And your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky! Then you will say to them, ‘Yes, the stars always make me laugh!’ And they will think you are crazy. It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you…”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,