I have long been interested in Death, the inevitable finishing point of this thing called Life. Perhaps it is the social undercurrent of secrecy and foreboding that draws me in or maybe it’s my own fear and terror that demands I look it in the face. One thing I do know is that my first experience with death felt like a rite of passage. Nothing would ever quite feel the same.
The first death I experienced was a girl in my final year at school. We were 17. While I did not really know her, I could not blind myself to the safety of my ageist ignorance ever again; especially as I witnessed the effect her death had on her family and those in her intimate circle. Within 6 months I had lost a beloved drama teacher and my grandfather. Twelve months to the day after my grandfather’s death, my dad died suddenly. I was 18 years old.
I have always seen my father’s death as the beginning of my Spiritual awakening. It forced me to realise the finite nature of my world and to ponder bigger questions.
I was Stage Managing our college production of Hamlet (the irony of this my mum assured me dad would have appreciated), and I had friends due to attend on the Saturday. The Friday night I looked out in the audience and saw my mum and a family friend sitting in the audience. I was surprised but excited. At the end of the production I went about my Stage Manger duties, resetting props and sweeping the stage. The director came to me repeatedly urging me to go and see my mum; that she had come along way to be here. I reassured him that she was not as old as she looked!
Eventually we got in the car, I sat in the back as our family friend was driving, and after an initial discussion we decided to go back to my mums house, an hour and a half drive away. Mum had asked me if I wanted to stop and pick up some washing, I declined. I talked about the production, riding the post show high, asking them a million questions about what they thought about aspects of the show; this went on for some time and when a lull fell in the conversation my mum seized the moment and said “so have you got all that out of your system”.
From memory it was at this point I started to cry. The panic and emotion already registered before my mind knew what had happened; just like jumping back before consciously seeing the snake on the path. My mum told me how my dad had had a heart attack the day before and been taken to hospital but had died. I wept in the back trying not to make any noise. My mother stroked my leg from her front seat. She asked me if I wanted her to sit in the back with me. I said no, I could not have held it together, and at that point in my life I thought that was the right thing to do. I wept as silently as I could. After a time my mum said ”Do you want to know something lovely? Your sister had a baby girl today.” This was the first child born of this next generation, the first grand child. At that moment I didn’t think it was lovely. I felt a wave of sadness at the realisation they would never meet. (Much later I would reflect on this often; that any future friends and boyfriends would not know my dad, that my future children would not know their grandfather. I couldn’t comprehend how someone; who had been so important in my life would not be known to them).
We arrived back at my mums and I felt self-conscious as I confronted my siblings, feeling exposed being one day behind in the grieving process. The funeral in a couple of days would put us all on the same page.
My dad was Peter Pan. He was always up for new things and six months earlier had said to a brother-in-law that he would really like to try marijuana. He had a zest for life and the new that I have often wished I could have shared, as I got older and more able to appreciate.
Much of the nuances around the event of my father’s death have been pieced together after a time. It may not be the same for my siblings but it’s the sequence I have become comfortable with.
My dad had been sick for some time. He had had a couple of mild heart attacks that really none of us had taken very seriously. Prior to becoming unwell dad had taken on a health regime in response to onset of diabetes; so the paradox of his health deteriorating after ‘getting healthy,’ caused some amusement in my family. Even though he was at home convalescing, the gravity of the situation didn’t seem apparent to any of us.
I believe my dad was ready to die, and made the choice on some level, to leave this realm. He hated the restriction. He had said to another brother-in-law that he wished it would end one way or the other. I remember this brother-in-law saying some time later that a week before my dad died, he could smell death on him.
He was at home on the Thursday evening with my then 14-year-old brother and brother-in-law. They were watching television. My mum and sister were out late night shopping. Dad got up to go to the bathroom. He said to them both, don’t worry about me. He left the room and they heard a noise like the cats jumping through the bathroom window; knocking something down. Twenty minutes later my brother found my dad collapsed on the floor of the bathroom. A heavy burden for him to bear!
My mother’s instinct, refined by 32 years of attunement to my father, decided to ring to see how he was. Finding the phone engaged she headed home. My mum’s synchronicity continued as she arrived to the ambulance in the driveway. I often think of how hard that must have been for her to meet that moment that all of us dread as we age with a life partner.
After 6 weeks of crying, there was a night I didn’t cry myself to sleep. Then one morning it wasn’t my waking thought.
My father died while I was still transitioning from girl to woman. I may have always been a late bloomer but my dad’s death seemed to cotton wool me even further. In hindsight I think part of me wanted to protect myself from ever experiencing a loss again.
Five years after my father died I moved interstate.
I only had 18 years with my dad (and probably only 8 years of conscious memories). I remember how much my dad sweated. His funny mismatched Op shop clothes back when Op shop clothes weren’t fashionable. I remember the weird jazz he listened to. I remember how he would volunteer to stay home and stuff the chickens when we went to church at Christmas and Easter, a truly selfless act for an atheist. I remember how he used the doorway to scratch his back. I remember he drank too much. I remember how he was always interested and curious about what we were all doing. I remember him shaking with emotion as he told me how much he loved me after a fight we had on a summer camping trip.
The thing that surprised me the most about my father’s death was that it wasn’t the end of our relationship. In fact my relationship with my dad has changed and deepened as I have aged and has reinformed my other relationships with family. He has a life long, box seat in my internal private audience.
I have no new lived memories with my dad but I often wonder how he would react to something. I live in a city with a thriving jazz scene and here I am 30 odd years later imagining how he would have loved to visit me and immerse himself in the music scene; I guess in this way I continue to create experiences in some ways informed by him.
In this way he remains close.