Ten years ago I managed to trip on our broken path (running inside quickly, cos I needed the toilet – how embarrassing!) and need four stitches in my knee. So, The Boy (my then-flatmate) drove me north, so I could be pampered by my mum – and we could both have a break.
Because I had to go to the doctor’s surgery every day, for dressing changes, Mum took the opportunity to get Dad to the doctor. Something wasn’t right.
At Christmas, he thought he’d eaten something that didn’t agree with him. My sister, L, still feels guilty – she put together his food that night, and might have given him seafood without realising (the vegetarian wasn’t able to taste test the food first).
In February, at K&M’s 25th wedding anniversary, some of us realised that Dad really wasn’t ok. But, he just thought he’d done something to his shoulder, but the osteo treatment wasn’t fixing it.
Mid-March, at my uncle & aunt’s 25th wedding anniversary, he wasn’t better. He was worse.
Then – the trip, the trip north, and the trip to the doctor.
The doctor was worried, and asked the big hospital for an urgent x-ray. Dad drove us to the big smoke for shopping. Dad and I stayed in the car and talked about feeling useless, will Mum and The Boy did the running around.
Home, and the x-ray appointment arrived. For a couple of months’ time. Daily doctor’s visit – and the doctor rings the hospital in the not-so-big-smoke who said, sure thing. Send him in – we’ll fit him in. It may have been only a day, but the 1 hour drive to the big smoke tired Dad out, so The Boy did the 1 hour drive to the not-so-big-smoke. Off we went, commenting on the lack of satellite dishes on the houses we saw.
At the hospital. I don’t know how long it took, or what the rest of us did while waiting. What I do remember is the amazing doctor who told us the results. He was an older man, I think Indian. And he sat on the hospital bed beside Dad and held his hand. And he told him – and us – that it was lung cancer. And, my not-so-touchy-feely Dad (especially with men), held onto those hands, like they were a lifeline as we were thrown into the rapids. That doctor was the epitome of compassion, caring, and love.
At work, there were people who didn’t know what to say or do. One friend apologised because she couldn’t do anything – or say anything. But, what she could do was lend me her spare mobile phone, just in case. And that was perfect. Practical, thoughtful, and not gushy or overly sympathetic.
Then – I don’t know how long after – Dad finally got a specialist appointment at the big hospital in the big smoke. I had a training thing that morning and, part way through the morning, my phone rang – it was The Boy. I just left that room. Luckily, it wasn’t about Dad, it was a confused Boy wondering if I’d done something with our lawnmower. Yeah, right. No, it was stolen – thanks neighbours.
During the tea break, I apologised to the trainer – who was wonderful and sympathetic. From that I learnt, when I’m running a training session or meeting – I don’t insist on phones being off. Maybe vibrate and silent. But, I don’t know what’s going on in their lives. I’m sure that most of the time I looked like nothing was wrong. And, maybe my trainees have that coping-face on.
The Boy picked me up from the training and we drove north. K&M came up too.
The big hospital visit. How different this experience was from the not-so-big hospital. This was anonymous medical-land. We waited. Dad wasn’t good. So, The Boy used tricks of the trade – and rustled up a wheelchair and, with threats of vomiting from the sick man, a couple of blankets and a bowl. Not sure what happened to the bowl, but the blankets are quite nice. The Boy did the wheelchair pushing and escorting to x-ray.
Then, en masse, we met the specialist. You know, one of those who have moved beyond ‘doctor’ back to ‘mister’. Dad was vanishing into himself – and wasting away. Mum was losing her much-loved partner. So, it was the four children – two by blood, and two by choice – who did the majority of the questioning (me, not so much – the others are much more bolshie). Without consulting each other, we tried to get the doctor to say the ‘d’ word – dead, dying, death, deadly… And he wouldn’t. Seriously, you didn’t need a medical degree to figure out the two sets of x-rays were of a dying man. You don’t get from a marble-sized tumour to a tennis ball-sized one in a couple of months without having a really negative diagnosis. The specialist said it was inoperable and untreatable – Dad was too sick for radiation or chemo, and the tumour was too big for localised treatment (like radiation). But, he still wouldn’t say the ‘d’ word. Heads up medical professionals: we’re not stupid. Sometimes, some of us want the truth. And, avoiding the word, while acting like a cold bastard, doesn’t make your news easier – or us like you at all. Be like that other doctor. Hold our hands. Be human and compassionate. And tell the truth.
[While I was writing this down, I was watching a programme on Great Ormond Street Hospital’s cardiac unit. I watched those doctors being compassionate, and human, and saying the ‘d’ word to parents. And, when asked by a young patient, say that his new heart would come from someone who didn’t need it any more because their brain had stopped working for some reason and they had died.]
Reeling, we go home. And there a letter awaits from our landlord’s agents – we need to move. The Boy and I sat on the edge of my bed and crying and swore in disbelief.
More time passed. We moved. I had bad days at work. One so bad I went home before we’d been open to the public for an hour. I dealt with one customer – I don’t know what I said or did – but I knew I wasn’t there. So, I just walked into the office and told my team leader I was going home. No, I didn’t ask permission. And, no, I didn’t care at all how it affected my team. The next day, while waiting for the safe to open, the building custodian handed me a comments form, complaining about me. It was that customer – the only one I dealt with the day before. Wonderful man, the custodian said ‘I know this isn’t you. I know what’s going on. Nobody else needs to know about this’ – and handed me the form to deal with. I showed my best mate at work, and Dude said ‘what did you do’ – I honestly don’t know. So, I tore the form up, and threw it away.
Roll on Mothers’ Day. We had a new house. There was a rugby game on. And Dad was getting really serious about this dying thing. So, we had a party in the afternoon. We’d joked about Mum and Dad remarrying before he died. They didn’t – but we did have a cake with a bride & groom figurine on top. We watched rugby. Dad held court from my bed for a lot of the day. Family members we hadn’t seen for years came. And we didn’t talk about death – but we all knew it was close. We were just there and together.
I’d rung to see how much it would cost to have a helicopter trip to Waitakere Park Lodge (now Waitakere Estate). Dad had talked about wanting a helicopter ride, and he’d worked on the Lodge many, many years earlier (see the scoria fireplace and wall – that’s Dad’s work ) – but, there was no time. And, I feel guilty for that – if only I’d thought of it earlier.
A couple of weeks later, we were all north. Camped out at neighbours, sleeping on the floor (yes, on mattresses) – wherever. And, I nearly didn’t make it. One Monday night, Mum rang me. She put L on the phone, because L would say the truth – and she told me it was close. I said, would he be there on Thursday, and she said she didn’t know. I cried that night. I packed my bag – half of it for up north; the other half for the conference I was supposed to be going to the next day. I went to work, not knowing what I was going to do. There were plans in place – not necessarily shared. But my newish-to-the-family brother-in-law had figured out that, if necessary, he’d get his Dad to drive from Hobbiton to Rotorua to pick me up, and b-in-l would drive to Auckland and I’d swap cars. I spoke to my manager as soon as she arrived at work. And she said, go – don’t worry about us and the conference, I’ll sort it out. Go north. So, I rang for a lift north – and went.
The Boy had used the skills he learnt from Dad to tile the bathroom, so Dad didn’t have to step over or up to get into the shower. It was – and is – a rough and ready job, but it was done.
I watched my beloved brother-in-law, who has been in my life longer than my memory (I was six-months-old when he started dating my sister) and is one of Dad’s sons-by-love, help Dad go to the toilet. I thought how close they were – that Dad would allow someone (other than Mum) to be this physically close to him, helping in such an intimate way. M sat on the stool in the shower box and chatted to Dad. But, he drew the line at the bum-wiping bit – that was Mum’s job.
The last day came – Wednesday. We knew it was almost time. Phone calls were made. The local doctor came, in her gardening clothes – she’d told Mum she wanted to say goodbye, and just to ring whenever. Dad’s big sister came, to say goodbye to her baby brother. (I remembered the phone call Dad made to his big sister when their mother died - I overheard him say 'we're orphans' - and it brought home to me that we will always be kids, and always need our parents - even if we're grown-up - Dad was 57 then.)
|Dad and his big sister|
I told Dad that we’d be ok, and we’d look after Mum. He said ‘good as gold’. We listened to Dad call ‘Whoosh, Whoosh’ – his private call to their missing cat. (Someone later admitted that they’d buried a cat like theirs, after they’d found it poisoned. L and K disinterred him, and reburied him at home.) We know his supporters and beloved family were waiting for him.
We asked Dad to last one more day. It was three years to the day since Mum’s Dad had died. My poor cousin really didn’t want another death on his birthday. ‘Not on my birthday again, Mum’ was his plea when my aunt rang him with the news. We asked Dad to stay a little while longer, so we could get some sleep. Or, try to.
This last night, Mum asked to be left alone with Dad. The previous night, others had camped out in their room. Around 5am, my oldest nephew sat with them. By 5.30, word had gone out and the family gathered wherever they could fit.
At 5.45 (pretty much) he died. He’d given us that day. That time to rest.
He was surrounded by love. Surrounded by his family. Surrounded by his legacy.
More phone calls. One pissed me off so much – and they have no idea what they did – but I struggle to play nice. For the second time in three years, I rang my uncle – and called him ‘Uncle’ (something I’d been banned from on my 13th birthday) with news of a family death.
The hospice ladies came. L helped them lay Dad out. This whole experience made L reassess what she wanted to do – and this was it. To be a carer. To her great credit, that’s what she’s doing.
While we waited for the funeral director to make the 2+ hour trip north from Auckland, we sat beside Dad and talked. And laughed. And watched the (at that stage, only) great-grandson crawl over Dad’s legs to get to his mum on the other side of the bed. His mum was a bit shocked – but there was no need to be. Dad loved that little man when he was alive – why should he mind now? Death is so far out of our experience these days, so alien – but, in my family, if we can do death our way – at home – we will. Maybe it’s the Irish in us.
|Mum, Dad and the first great-grand - less than an hour old|
The Director arrived and The Boy, who wasn’t really comfortable with seeing Dad dead, braved the bedroom to say ‘Sorry, Grandad, but you’re going in a Ford’. And The Boy told the Director that Dad was a Holden man.
I don’t know what it did to my brother, helping the Director take Dad out of the house. I don’t know how many of my family know that they had to turn the stretcher (yes, Dad was on a stretcher, with a zipped body bag surrounding it all) on its side to get it out of the front door. It was shocking for me, watching it.
Back to Auckland. Meeting with the celebrant – who wasn’t as irreverent as we were / are. Dad had talked to some about his service (there was a period of time after diagnosis, but before really bad, that he was ok with such talk) – so we knew some of the music he wanted. The Boy made sensible suggestions, too. We wanted to play Judy Collins’ version of ‘Send in the clowns’ while people entered the room – the celebrant didn’t think it was appropriate.
Dad had always wanted Rod Stewart’s ‘Sailing’, too
The Boy made an amazing suggestion to the mix – it was perfect… Rogert Whittaker’s ‘Durham Town’
As it was, the music didn’t work – so we were left with Herb Alpert’s ‘The lonely bull’ every single time.
(The Director apologised to me, and explained the situation – the CD wasn’t playing. And they’d tried every player in the building, and those in the cars. If it had played in a car, they would have backed the car up to the doors, and put a mike by the speakers.)
The service. People spoke. There were tears. There were hugs. And we supported each other. We coped however worked for us. I was in work-mode – greeting and talking and speaking, and trying to get people to laugh. I handed out all my tissues. I held people’s hands. I got teary, but I didn’t cry. Others needed those tissues, and my strength.
One of the hardest things I had to do was sight and sign the death certificate documentation. The Director didn't want to add to Mum's burden. And there, sitting in K&M's bedroom, I had to tick a box that told the world my parents weren't married. That my Dad was divorced. That box angered me. There was nothing in that documentation to say what those years living-in-sin had meant to my parents. How much closer to together they were, unmarried, than they had been married. That they lived together, unmarried, far longer than they had married.
Back north for the burial – as Dad wanted. We wanted balloons. This came about from a conversation Dad had had years ago with one of the grandkids at her other grandad’s funeral… the family was there, there was party food – so it must be a party… so why weren’t there balloons? Dad promised her balloons at his funeral. So, we filled balloons with helium (which is really expensive). L & her son, J-J, left helium-voiced messages on our answer phones. We wrote messages to Dad and tied them to the balloons.
The funeral directors had rushed through the outfitting of the Boss’ new car so that Dad could come up from Auckland in a brand-new Holden. We weren’t quite ready so, when asked, he took Mum and Dad for a drive along the beachfront, stopping at the wharf. People – those guys went out of their way to make everything work for US. If you want their names… Davis in Henderson.
The rest of us processed up to the churchyard. Carrying our spades – ready to bury our Dad. My brother started singing Bowie’s ‘Please Mr Grave Digger’
We spoke. Mum managed to say a few words. And we buried our foundation.
Mum had met with the sexton of the cemetery to find out the rules. It’s such a tiny graveyard – Dad has been the only burial in nearly 20 years – so the rules were: whatever you want to do is fine, as long as we have a mowing strip; and, we will need to dig the grave, because of the soil condition, but the family can do the filling in.
One of M’s workers made up a macrocarpa surround for the grave – and embedded a golf ball and tee, and a piece from Dad’s schist pile. He also made us a macrocarpa bench for beside the grave, so we have somewhere to sit while we talk to Dad. There’s no headstone, just the simple cross and nameplate and a small plaque – both of which are often covered in flowers, particularly the plaque at Dad’s feet, which has violets all over it, Dad’s mum’s favourite flowers.
We wouldn’t let Mum move to Auckland. I’d read a lot about death and grief ( that’s why I say the ‘d’ word and not ‘passed away’ or other such platitudes. He hasn’t passed on. My Dad is dead.), We all knew that making decisions at this time was not a good idea. We told Mum she could come to Auckland at any time, and we’d support whatever decision she made – in a year’s time.
It's hard to be exact with times... Dad was diagnosed in March. He was dead in late May. Before his x-ray appointment at the big hospital.
One year on and Mum wanted to move to Auckland. The Boy and I had bought a house by this point (another landlord letter…) and had space for her. The Boy is convinced that Dad had a hand in our house purchase. There are many things about that house that reminded us of my childhood home – the one built by my Dad.
Ten years on. That sole great-grandchild has become many. They will never know how amazing their Grandad was (he was / is only Grandad – all other Grandads have qualifiers… he doesn’t). But his teachings, his example, are demonstrated by our actions. We live the lessons he taught, often unaware that he was teaching. My oldest nephew’s children, both born after Dad died, talk of Grandad – like they know him. And, maybe they do. He used to visit family after his dead – people who are the least likely to believe in ghosts – but, one of the grandkids would say ‘Grandad’s here’, while Mum was in Auckland.
Each day we carry on. We live. We laugh. We love. All with a massive hole in our lives and hearts. Most of the time, for me anyway, its like I’m in survival mode, and it seems like he’s been dead for ages (which, at 10 years, he has, but it’s always felt that way). But I miss him.
As I wrote this, last night in my notebook, I cried. Actual sobs, not just a tear or two. For the first time in my memory, I sobbed. I’m not a crying girl, so it was shock. For an hour, I cried. And, maybe it was time.
But, I don’t know whether it helped. I don’t think there’s actually anything that does ‘help’ with grief. You just carry on. You grieve. You mourn the loss. You live. And laugh. And make it through each day. Some days are better than others. And time has no meaning for grief.
So, ten years on, on his death day – a few of us will be up north. On the weekend after his death day – there will be heaps of us. And we’ll party, probably much like we did the Mother’s Day before he died – with that awareness over us, but talking of other stuff. But, we’ll be together. We’ll be a family.
And that’s Dad’s most important legacy and gift. We are a family, bound by more than blood and legal ties.
We are a family tied together by Dad.