My First Death

the tree

A family friend, Paul, a guy I practically grew up with, recently said:  “I’m not scared of death.  I love death.  I’m fascinated by it…”  he trailed off, probably because I was giving him a funny look.  I thought he sounded morbid, he sounded pretentious and most of all, he sounded like he was trying too hard, like he was scared but pretending not to be.

He’s the son of my dad’s best friend, we were sitting outside at her house.  I hadn’t seen him for close to fifteen years and we were now only together in the same place because my dad was dying.

Growing up, probably just like any child, I was terrified of death.  Not so much my own, but my mother’s.  The idea of her no longer being there scared me.  The fear grew to a paranoia, that even every day activities would get her killed – like going shopping and getting hit by a car, being in a car crash…  anything unpredictable.  I remember I would go with her wherever she needed to go, as though I were lucky and that my presence would protect her.

When I couldn’t go, I made sure to tell her that I loved her, like that was enough to protect her too.  Or that she would at least know, in case anything ever happened.

I don’t know when it started but I remember one night there was something like a meteor shower, or maybe a planet was in view that usually wasn’t, or maybe something else to do with stars and space.  Mum woke my brother and I up at something like 1am, bundled us up and took us for a drive so that we could see it better.  I don’t remember seeing anything, but I do remember suddenly becoming terrified that there was nothing to stop us from having an accident.  It was pitch black outside, the only light was the headlights on the road, there was no other traffic.  I don’t know how old I was – probably under ten – and the fear made me freeze in panic.  Of course nothing happened, and Mum’s driving wasn’t that bad, so we got home in one piece.

I don’t know if this kind of fear is normal, but it mellowed as I grew older.  When I was in my late teens, Mum was diagnosed with COPD and I think that helped in an odd way.  The unimaginable had happened and you find a way to cope and it becomes part of life.  Since she was diagnosed I’ve had to call an Ambulance countless number of times and one time, only three or four years ago she was hospitalised in ICU.  But she’s still alive, she no longer smokes and not every day is a bad day.  Sometimes not every week is a bad week.

My dad on the other hand…  he was always healthy.  He quit smoking in the 70s, his biggest problem was his obesity, but he aged well.  My relationship with him was rocky – we barely saw him growing up, maybe three or four times of year.  I never questioned it as I was growing up, but when I got older I realised that he chose his job over his children.

He retired, lost weight and managed to keep it off, he was active going bike riding and walking.  He was always out doing something or seeing someone.  He loved photography and was always somewhere taking photos and every now and then he had clients.

When I was 22 I got my license so I was able to visit him more often.  At the most a couple of times a year.  His flat was always crammed with photography equipment and his photography covered almost all of the walls.  Our relationship was still rocky and he talked all the time so I often got irritated and left early.  Sometimes I would regret visiting – he had always been sexist, misogynistic and he believed I was still fourteen and still careless and angry.  Those weekends I would get home just as angry and frustrated as my fourteen year old self had been, except with more of an ability to control my feelings.

But some weekends were good.  We got along well and I could ignore his sexist remarks and his assumptions that I was still fourteen and couldn’t do anything adequately (for example instructing me on how to open a draw carefully instead of just yanking it out so that it fell on the floor.)  We would go out to lunch and chat and sometimes we would go on photography excursions to the beach or fields.  He had a barbeque on his tiny balcony and he continually talked about having his friends and I over for a barbeque one day.  Whenever we went into town we usually ended up running into one or two of his friends, he seemed to know everyone in town.

He was also very proud of me and what I’d achieved, despite treating me like I’d never grown up, he would always talk to me about my accomplishments and let me know how proud he was.

In May 2011 I had a very long, detailed dream.  In the last part of the dream there was a middle aged woman who was looking after an elderly man and woman.  The elderly man was in a wheelchair.  I assumed they were her grandparents.  They were in a spaceship which was docked in a loading bay.  The spaceship was an old model cargo ship that had been decommissioned.  This is what I wrote after having the dream:

Growing fast along the walls of the carrier was green, succulent looking ivy, winding its way along the walls at alarming speed. It seemed that it was only growing in the carrier because the cockpit and loading bay were untouched. As she looked at the loading bay, it seemed like it was so far away, in its own world from the gently rocking ship, the water around it ebbing slowly, changing colours in the rays of sunlight. It was a haunting effect and the woman felt so tired, but not a natural tired. She felt like she’d been drugged. It was a sinister feeling.

She went back to watching the ivy as it continued to grow. She watched as it reached her grandfather and suddenly he cried out, a terrified cry of confusion and fear and with a distant kind of horror, the woman realised that the ivy was not only growing around him, but also through him as though he wasn’t even there. He was staring down at a curling strand of ivy growing through his chest, his mouth gaping open in silent horror.

Yet the woman couldn’t even react. It was like she didn’t know that her grandfather was family – it was like he wasn’t even there anymore. All she could see was the ivy, the way it was growing was like it was a hypnotising, calm dance.

She reached forward and pulled one of the green roots from her grandfathers chest, sleepily – dreamily – curious. It started to grow through her finger like it was just loose soil and the woman, satisfied with her experiment, reached her finger up and pushed the ivy onto the ceiling where it latched on and began growing through the thick metal.

The dream stayed with me for months and I still remember it clearly.  I decided to get it interpreted and was told that the ivy represented a cancerous growth, but I dismissed it.

About a year after having the dream and only a few months after the interpretation, I was at my dad’s place.  I hadn’t seen him for almost a year.  It was just another normal visit except he casually told me that he’d had a mole on his leg checked out and they’d discovered it was a melanoma.  He told me that he’d had it for years, but had been told it was nothing to worry about.  It was only diagnosed this time because he’d had to see another doctor.

He’d never told me about the mole before and he acted so casually about it after telling me, that I believed that it wasn’t anything to worry about.  They’d cut it out and everything would be fine.  We talked about how he’d gotten it.  He’d always worn long pants, his legs had almost never seen the light of day.

Then he reminded of the time I was fourteen, when I’d kicked him.  We’d had a fight about something and he lost his patience with me and went to hit me with his belt.  I’d never been belted before, usually he would hit me so hard in the ear that I would get dizzy.  I remember feeling scared and then angry, I suddenly didn’t understand why I shouldn’t protect myself.  I kicked him in the leg and ran into my room and hid in the wardrobe and after that, he didn’t try to hit or belt me again.  But I remember that he disappeared for hours after and when he came back, I discovered that he’d been to the hospital because he had blood circulation problems and he was worried about his leg.

“I told my friend about it,” he said now, years later, “and she thought I should let you know that by kicking my leg, you caused the melanomas.  She said that you need to learn about consequences of your actions.”

I was incredulous.  “Are you kidding?  Kicking someone can’t cause melanomas!  Also I’m 25, I learnt about consequences a long time ago.  I don’t need this as a lesson.  Who’s your friend?”

He wouldn’t say and I remember feeling horrified that anyone could think of blaming this on someone.  But I also remember feeling hurt and doubtful.  Was it possible?  I knew it wasn’t, but I couldn’t help feeling the doubt anyway.

“I’m sorry you have a melanoma, but I’m not taking responsibility for it.”

It wasn’t until a year later that I realised that his melanoma was on his right leg.  I was right handed, when I kicked him, I would have kicked with my right leg, which would mean that I would have kicked him in the left leg.  I never pointed this out to him and I remember Mum being indignant that I was still thinking about it.

After the diagnosis, the melanoma was removed.  I drove two hours to pick him up and then two hours back again to go to the melanoma clinic.  On the drive back to his place he admitted to me that he never regretted working so much and not seeing my brother and I.  He told me that he’d loved his job and that even if he could go back and do it all again, he wouldn’t.  He said that it was good the couple of times that he saw us, but we all needed to have our own lives and he was happy with the way we’d turned out, he’d been happy not being a father.

It was the shortest two hour drive ever, we spent the entire time arguing.  He wouldn’t apologise for never being there because he didn’t see it as something he should apologise for.  When I got home, I discovered a message from him.  He’d “accidentally” left his wallet in my car.  I knew he hadn’t forgotten it, I’d given it to him.  He must have put it back in just so he could see me again.

My bestfriend Tara and her two year old were living with me at the time, so we went back the next day.  I was so angry with him, I stayed in the kitchen making cups of coffee and barely said anything and let Tara do all the talking.  We didn’t stay long.  I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that he’d told me he’d been happier with his job than with being a father.

It was another six months before I saw him again.  The melanoma had come back more aggressively, but instead of just one, there was now six.  He had to go back to the melanoma clinic to remove them again.

Another six months and there were sixteen all in the same spot.  He had them cut out again, but for the last time.  The next time more appeared in the same spot, they said they couldn’t keep cutting otherwise there wouldn’t be any leg left.  They said that with how aggressive the melanomas were, they were surprised he was still alive.

“I know why I’m still alive,”  he said to me later.  “I’ve taken vitamin C every day for the last thirty years.  But they’re stumped because they’re stupid and don’t realise how effective it is.  Why should I tell them?  This is the first time I’ve been sick in thirty years.”

He went to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for chemotherapy and in his second week there he had a heart attack, despite never having heart problems in his life.

This was May last year.  A few weeks after coming home he called me to come over to talk, which he’d never said before.  He never pestered me for visits, he believed that we should have our own lives and visited when we wanted, not when he asked.  I went over and he was depressed and crying.  The chemo hadn’t worked, he now had forty in the same spot and they were no longer staying in the same spot, either.  There were more around his leg, and one in the lymph node behind his knee.  He was in incredible pain through his body, but he said that his leg was pain free.  A nurse came to change his dressing every day and I saw his leg.  The melanomas were this large, gelatinous growth taking up all of his lower leg.  It looked like something an alien could burst out of.  The growth was white with congealed blood and at one point my dad looked at me and said “if it’s supposed to be dead now, then why is it still bleeding?”

Then he told me that he wanted me to start taking things I wanted from his flat.  He said that he owed money for taxes and he wanted us to take what we could so that it wasn’t all sold off once he died.  I refused.  I told him that I would visit him every weekend anyway, just to keep him company.  It was the first time I’d ever seen him cry and despite our rough history, he was still my father and I didn’t want to see him like this.

One day I went over there to help him out before he had to go to hospital again.  After he’d gone, I cleaned his kitchen – it was usually cluttered because it was tiny, but now there was half eaten food and dirty plates lying everywhere.  He was losing his taste for eating because of all the medications he was on.  His attitude had changed so much that I was scared he would kill himself.  I thought of all the medication he had and realised I didn’t know what he was most likely to overdose on so I called someone I knew in the medical field and for the first time started crying.

Something I learnt was that no matter how scared I was that my father would kill himself, in the end it wasn’t my decision.  I didn’t have to live with pain every single day.  I would rather he do what he felt was right, then suffer.

The next time I was over there I asked how his latest diet was going.  He was always trying some sort of fad diet.  There was always something he wasn’t eating – for years it was butter, then potatoes.  We were cooking dinner and I was surprised that he was having potatoes too.

“What’s the point?”  He asked.  “You can do something for years and then it turns out that it never mattered anyway.  I still have cancer.  Not eating pork wasn’t going to stop that.”

Yet another time we went to his best friends house for dinner.   She’s the one I grew up with, the one with the son who I hadn’t seen for fifteen years.  It was her grand daughter’s birthday and we were sitting outside around the table.  In the past, my dad was always the talkative one.  It saddened me to see the difference.  He barely said anything.  He sat at the table quietly and when he did talk, it was about his melanomas.  It was like he didn’t know anything else, that everything he’d done in the past counted for nothing now.  He was barely doing photography anymore, he just wasn’t interested.

We were eating and joking and then his best friends daughter looked at me pointedly and nodded at my dad.  He’d fallen asleep at the table, his eyes rolled back.  Everyone looked at me, I didn’t know what to do, I just felt incredibly sad and helpless.  I drove him home not long after that.

Over the next few months things changed.  He was losing his balance every day and needed a walking stick to get around.  He moved into a nursing home and later I found out from his best friend that he kept on getting confused and taking all his tablets at once, and then falling over.  One time I went over there and there was a pool of congealed blood on the bathroom floor.  I asked him if the axe murderer was still in the house.  It had been there for two days and he had tried to clean it up, but couldn’t.  The toilet paper he’d used to try and clean it up was stuck to the floor and was harder to clean than the blood.

But things got better at the nursing home.  He had people to monitor him every day.  He hated it there, but he seemed to cheer up.  When I visited we would go out for lunch, although he barely ate.  He began using a walking frame to get around.  I asked him if the melanomas had spread further, but he wouldn’t tell me.  I thought he knew, but he wasn’t saying anything.

The last time I saw him up was a few days after Christmas 2013.  I went over and he was sitting in his chair in the room.  He didn’t have the energy to go out like we usually did so we sat in his room and talked.  He’d lost a lot of weight and now survived mostly on energy shakes.  He just couldn’t eat, the medication had changed his tastebuds and nothing tasted good.  He had to force himself to drink the energy shakes, but he was still forever on the look out for food he could handle.  Every time I visited, he sent me to the supermarket on a mission to find something new that he hadn’t tried before.  His drawers and bar fridge were full of half eaten or unopened packets of food.

Before I left, he asked his physiotherapist to get him a wheelchair and I wheeled him to the front door and he saw me out.  I told him it wasn’t necessary, but he insisted that he would say goodbye to me at the front doors.  I was worried that he wouldn’t have the energy to wheel himself back to his room, but he was fine.  He wheeled himself with ease  around the reception area so I bent down to give him a hug and a kiss and then I left.

Towards the end of January this year I had a message from my brother that our dad’s bestfriend had messaged him to let him know that Papa had a fall and was now in bed deteriorating.  My brother doesn’t drive and lives four hours away, so I skipped work and I went there.

He was lying in bed but could still talk, at first I thought that I’d misunderstood the deteriorating part, but when I spoke to the nurses they said that they doubted he had more than a week left.  He had a bruise on his temple from when he’d fallen and they said that they think he now realises that he doesn’t have long left because his independence disappeared so quickly.

I visited him every weekend.  He outlived their estimate of a week.  At first he could talk with effort, but even that declined.  He lay in bed saying little, only what he could force out.  He cried a bit and at one point he squeezed my hand and wouldn’t let go and apologised for being like that.  I told him it didn’t matter and cried and was ashamed that he could see me crying because I didn’t want him to think I was upset because he couldn’t do anything.  But I was.  I didn’t want to see him lying in bed not able to get up.  I didn’t want to see him helpless.  Yet when he squeezed my hand, his grip was still strong.

Eventually, he didn’t talk at all.  He just slept.  Every now and then he would open his eyes and stare at the ceiling, or me, then he would sleep again.  I couldn’t be there every day, but his best friend said that on some week days he was sitting up and talking and laughing and others he would be sleeping.  She also said that he’d given his cameras to her son.  I was so angry and hurt.  I lost it completely.  He’d already promised them to me and she said that she didn’t know that, that when her son was visiting him he’d given them to him.

It wasn’t so much about the cameras, as it was about his promise, and that he’d broken it to give to someone that wasn’t even family.  To be clear, his bestfriend and her son have been in my dad’s life for 25 years.  I discovered that Paul saw more of my dad than my brother and I ever did, because that’s how my dad had wanted it.  So his actual children didn’t get a father, but someone who isn’t, did.  Now, someone who isn’t his biological son gets the only thing my father ever really cared about.

“It’s just that Paul is interested in photography and he and your father talked about it a lot while he was visiting…” His best friend said.

I was interested in photography too.  He knew that.  We’d talked about it.  But it didn’t matter what I said, to my dad I was always just a girl.  Always just female.  Women don’t count.  I tried over and over again to prove myself, but he always kept his old beliefs.  He once said to me, years ago, that women belong in the kitchen.  Women can’t be photographers or scientists.  I once told him about my interest in forensics and he laughed and told me that I can’t believe everything I see on NCIS.  I don’t even watch TV.  So at that moment, I realised that my father was dying without ever having properly known me.  My brother and Paul had meant the world to my father, but I’d always had to work harder.  He loved me, but he didn’t have the same admiration in me as he did towards my brother and Paul.

His bestfriend said that there were two cameras, that I could have one, but I refused.

It clearly hadn’t meant anything to him to give his cameras to me.  It would be meaningless if I had one let alone both, because despite what he’d said, he hadn’t ended up giving them to me.  Why would I take something that wasn’t meant for me?

I had a spur of the moment decision to become a mechanic, just to spite him.  I would love to learn how to fix cars, though I doubt I would ever attempt at becoming a mechanic, but right at that moment I was going to do it.  Because I could.

At the start of summer last year, when he was still active and could get around with just his walking stick, we went to a beach cafe and we were sitting watching the waves when he suddenly asked:  “Did I ever take you and your brother to the beach when you were growing up?”

“Yes, don’t you remember?  Port Macquarie and Surfers Paradise.”

He nodded.  “Good.  I’m pleased you didn’t miss out on that.”

And then a few minutes later:  “I would love to go swimming.  I’ve always loved the water.    Now I can’t do it.”

I was surprised, because I’d never known that about him.  I’ve always loved the water too, I can never get enough of swimming.  One more reason I’m like my father.

But skip forward a few months… I went and saw him again on a Friday, my day off, and he was sleeping.  I sat by his bed, holding his hand and watched his chest rise and fall.  Every now and then his chest would stop moving and he would stop breathing, only to start again a few seconds later.  He didn’t open his eyes in that visit and I decided to go back again the next day.  I wasn’t going to, I was still hurt and angry, but the way he was breathing worried me, and unlike during my past visits, he didn’t attempt to speak.

The next day I came over and he was lying on his side, his breath rattling as he slept.  His skin was pale.  Vivaldi was playing in the background.  He didn’t wake up when the nurse came in, which was unusual.  We talked normal volume, but he didn’t stir.  She told me that she didn’t know when he would die.  We watched him breathing, listening to the rattle in his breath.  She said that I couldn’t give him any fluids otherwise it would go into his chest (lungs? I don’t understand that part now).  For the last three weeks he’d been on constant morphine so she checked the levels and then left.

I sat there, listening to his breathing.  Vivaldi stopped and he began to get restless.  His eyes opened for the first time and I grabbed his hand and squeezed it and told him that I loved him.  His hand was icy cold.  He closed his eyes again and I got up and put Vivaldi back on.

There was a photo album next to his bed, from the 70s when he lived at Bondi Beach, back when rents were under $70 a month and you could afford to live in Sydney.  I flipped through it and smiled at some of the photos, of when he was in his 20s with wild hair and beard.  He stirred and coughed for the first time, it was an effort for him to get it out.  Another few minutes past and I looked at him and he was staring at me.  I squeezed his hand, still so cold, and went back to looking at the album.  He made some gurgling noises, I thought he was just trying to cough again and then suddenly the room seemed too still.  I looked at him and his eyes were open, staring at me.  I stared back.  “Papa?”  I asked, squeezing his hand.  His hand that was icy cold.  There wasn’t a reply and the rattling noise had stopped.  I shook him gently.  Nothing.

“I think he’s dead,” I said at the nurses station.  The nurse I’d been talking to earlier looked up at me, surprised.

“That was fast,”  she said, getting up with the other nurses following.  I was sobbing as they checked his vitals, a nurse was next to me rubbing my back.  They confirmed that he’d died.  I found out then that the melanomas had spread to his side and his brain.  He hadn’t told me because he was in denial.  Right up to that day he hadn’t wanted to die.  He REALLY hadn’t wanted to die.  He still wanted to do his photography, he still had hope that they would find a way to treat him, to get rid of the cancer.

I think all I really wanted was for him to die a painless death and he did.  Over the weeks it had been hard watching him suffer, knowing that he didn’t have a quality of life anymore.   I was scared that he would die before I had a chance to get there.

After the nurses had gone, leaving me to some privacy, I sat and looked at my father, sobbing.  His cheek bones stuck out and his skin was mix of grey and white.  I held his cold hand again.

I realised I was no longer scared of death.  It was 1 February 2014 and over the past three weeks that he was deteriorating, I knew I wasn’t scared anymore.  I looked at his face and thought that it must be peaceful, sleeping eternally.  I’ve never been religious, I don’t believe in god, but I like the idea of sleeping forever and living in your dreams.  Maybe eventually getting reincarnated.

I think I was so scared because both my parents immigrated from Germany.  The rest of my family is still over there, so I’ve never experienced death first hand.  Seeing it, seeing someone I love going through it, made it more real for me.  I looked at my father’s – at Papa’s face – and he didn’t look like he was suffering anymore.

In two weeks it’s his birthday, his 65th birthday, and we’ll be scattering his ashes at the breakwall, his favourite place.   I have my regrets – I think in his own argumentative way he tried to reach out to me and know me better but I blocked him – and I’m sorry I only had five years of getting to know him again, but I’m grateful that I got to be there for him when he needed me, never mind that the opposite wasn’t true.  I have to dig hard to find good memories out of many bad ones, but I know that he loved me and I know he was proud of me and I think in a few years I’ll be able to find the good memories that escape me now.

Life goes on.  I need to become a mechanic now.

Papa in the 1970s

Papa in the 1970s

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9 thoughts on “My First Death

  1. Wow, sorry to hear about this loss. This is a very powerful story you wrote. I lost my mother a while back now, but after that happened and after a lot of thinking, I came to kind of the same acceptance of death as you seem to mention; it’s not necessarily a bad and horrible event, but just an inevitable step to another existence that we can’t comprehend in our here and now.

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  2. Sorry for your loss. I have an illogical, overwhelming, crippling fear of death. It was not always this way-at least I don’t think so. Somewhere around 3 weeks after my concussion, I became consumed with it.

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    • Thank you. I’m not sure if it’s illogical, fear of the unknown is normal I think. I’m sorry for all you’ve gone through, I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose memories. Reading your blog makes me feel like we’re going through the journey with you.

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      • Thank you. I will write more on my fear of death soon. Lots I need to write about. Guess what’s frustrating is having someone remember something about me and I have the slightest connection with it. Happy I can take you along on my recovery.

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  3. This is very touching and real. Having lost my own biological father 20 years ago and my dad a little over a year ago, these words speak to the truth of the situation. I wish I had blogging to turn to 20 years ago. It might have made me a writer. You are not alone. Not that you think you are, but know you have a brother in California that has lived through a similar situation.

    Keep on keeping on.

    Liked by 1 person

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