How a ‘death squad’ helped me say goodbye to my dad
ONE of the greatest gifts my father ever gave me, two years prior to his death, was to instigate a conversation with me about his life, and his thoughts about his death.
It was a cold Saturday morning at a bayside beach cafe in Melbourne, a week after he'd been released from yet another hospital stint. He was down two toes this time, the result of complications with Type 2 diabetes. Breakfast on the weekends was a regular weekend ritual for Dad and I, but on this occasion, we were joined by Jane, a close friend of mine from interstate. Dad and I spent a lot of time arguing about sugar around this time, whether it was killing him, or whether it was bringing him joy. I see now, it was doing both.
On this morning, he raised his vanilla milkshake to his lips like a cheeky little boy, as he said "I want you to know that I've had a great life, I've done everything I wanted to do. The only thing I can't bear the thought of is not seeing your face again."
My heart felt heavy upon hearing his words. The thought of him dying had been a fear I'd had since I was a small child. Sensing the weight of the moment, my friend Jane stepped in and said, "Well Ian, you know your daughter and I have some pretty weird ideas about all that, and we believe we will see you again. And that we're never really gone. In fact, we think we all go somewhere pretty magical."
My dad did his half nod, half shake of the head, with a kind of Billy Idol half smirk. The one that meant he was listening, albeit not completely convinced you weren't just a little nuts. Jane continued, "So Ian, when the time comes and you leave the planet, if you discover that we were right, why don't you come back and give Amber a little sign?" He paused for a second and then chuckled, while politely agreeing. I took this moment to lighten the mood, and to hide my heaviness from dad, by adding "Yeah Dad, do, but don't make it too creepy."
I sensed the gravity of the conversation with my dad, as it was unfolding.
My dad died on Good Friday this year.
Since he's been gone, I've been at the mercy of this thing called grief. It's not only painful, but it's extremely lonely. I've seen the way people scurry off once the funeral is over. I've experienced many dark days and hours, when it feels as though you might be the only one that's ever waded through the grief pond. I've wished more people would talk to me about their experience with death, so I can try to make sense of mine, and heal. It seems strange to me, a born talker I guess, that few offer a conversation about what they know, or think about death.
I wonder why I hadn't heard that the "firsts" are not just the significant days; their birthday, your birthday, Father's Day, Christmas and their death anniversary. I've discovered the truth of the "firsts" is they swarm around you like ants on a dropped sweet on the footpath. Like as you find yourself just metres away from the bench you last sat on eating dumplings with your dad, after you decide to swing past the South Melbourne market to grab bread.
Or as you're descending over the city, your first trip away since his death, as you peer out the window down at the peaceful twinkling of the lights of your hometown at night. The contemplation of who you'll first call when you land. The ones who always miss you. And then it slaps you on the side of the head; "he doesn't live here anymore". Or even just as you open the boot of your car, to find his favourite jacket crumpled among your gym gear and supermarket bags, The jacket you promised him you'd get dry-cleaned, but you ran out of time. You literally ran out of time.
And yet, what I have learnt about death is it's not treated like other news in your life; a new job, partner, a small Maltese Shih Tzu called Marley, or a new home - because most people don't come looking for updates. They send you text messages saying "how's the new guy?" with half a dozen carefully curated emojis hanging off the question, but when your news happens to be death, a lot of people go awfully quiet. At a time when you've just had the biggest chunk of love ripped from your heart, the kind of moment most fertile for the seeds of darkness to begin to grow, it's hard not to notice how often people don't ask, "are you OK?"
Why is it we talk more about the death of a celebrity with each other, than we do about the people we knew?
My dad's death was sudden. It was heartbreaking and difficult (it still is), but my dad gifted me with the clarity of his life, because he was brave enough to share. Every time the darkness descends and I can feel that part of me that wants to drag me further into misery by turning his life into a tragedy, I can hear his words; "I've led a good life. I've done everything I wanted to do."
The evening before my dad died, an angel called Grace came into his room. She was the nurse in charge at St Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne that night. Part of the amazing team I've come to refer to affectionally as "the death squad". As my dad lay semiconscious in bed, Grace whispered to him, "Ian, I'm going to move your bed towards the window. I want you to look out towards the light and tell me what you see?" She wasn't expecting a response. She just want him to see the golden, pinky dusk of the night sky. It was one of the most beautiful nights I've ever seen. A smile came across his face as he squinted to look ahead. "Now Ian, I want you to take that image with you on your next journey."
We shy away from conversations that involve death, and yet not all of them are uncomfortable or painful. Some of them are the most precious and heartwarming stories you'll ever hear, and some are not. And yet both represent life and an opportunity to build resilience, and importantly, to heal.