When I asked my Dad, as he lay dying in a palliative hospital at the edge of a vineyard, whether he was afraid of what was to come, he looked at me straight and said, “No. I don’t think there’s anything after this.” He just wanted to get it over with.
And shortly after this moment of bleak clarity, his soul began to slip away, he became less and less present and then he finally left. Leaving a dark space where a person should have been. He did indeed disappear into the dust.
That final conversation cast doubt on the idea of an afterlife. Although sometimes, when there is a wind blowing, it reminds me of the day he died and my love for him (which is still alive) wills him to be there. The lake was all white horses and waves — just like the sea. It was as if he was carried away by the wind, or perhaps he finally became angry and was telling us so.
The few months of illness he suffered were a kaleidoscope of emotion. Strangely — not all bad. We clung to one another as a family. We laughed with him. We found humour in the absurdities — joked about the hospital roommates that he wanted to murder — and giggled because what punishment could be meted out to someone already dying?
So many people told him and showed him how much they loved and respected him. We saw family and friends come and go in a steady stream from London and Cape Town.
We entertained between hospital appointments. We communicated across oceans, giving updates, offering information, sometimes hope, sometimes sadness. We grasped at the little information offered by the doctors. The promise of stabilising the thing versus the vertiginous decline of the man.
We were comforted and irritated in equal measure by kind friends offering food, love, stories, advice. Some said the right thing, others said it all wrong. We were enraged by the silence from those who said nothing at all. But we sympathised with their fear of something so existentially awful. If it happened to him — it could happen to me.
Time stood still, yet also marched on. Our lives stopped. But his short life raced to its finish line. Every day brought a new dysfunction. Another undeserved hurt to endure. And each moment was muter than the next. Never normally seen without his phone and a sharp riposte at the ready, the once adored device lay uselessly pinging by his bedside. His screen ever dark.
Our family chatter continued and it was fierce and affirming. It was as if we needed to fill his quietness and to mask our private agony with logistics and reassurances. The morning messages — at 5am — presaged the day. The events in the night, news from the nurses. Did he eat? Did he go to the toilet? Did he fall? Did he manage to sleep? Was he getting closer to the end?
The day before he died, I turned to my mum in the car and declared, “this journey is killing me.” It was the penultimate one. It was the last journey, in fact, to see — to speak — to my Dad. Although I can’t be sure he heard me that day.
The death rattle was replaced the following morning by silence. But really, he had been silent some few weeks already.
The hours and days that followed were full of grief, bewilderment and of course relief. The tortuous half-life that he had been living was finally past and we could begin again. Remember him alive and vital — as he wanted to be. The awful trauma of watching a slow death (or perhaps it was fast?) was over. The funeral was life-celebrating, he was adored in death as in life.
Now at night, the dreams come. He is there — sometimes sick, sometimes healthy — but I always know that he will be gone soon. Temporary. We are all temporary, you see. It seems obvious now — but I never completely understood it before. During the day there are the places, the people, the times that catch your breath and remind you painfully of his absence.
But most of all, there is his death.
His death is not absent — it is there. Ever present. It is full and detailed. It is documented in scanned hospital letters, permanent entries in last year’s diary, marked by milestones of deterioration.
The photos we all took — knowing they would be the last — endure. A&E at Geneva University Hospital: diagnosis day. The Julliard ward: dazed and confused. Sunshine and walks in the park: high on corticosteroids. A day trip to the mountains: battling fatigue. A last walk along the lake: bravely facing the worst of the side-effects. Back in the hospital, 7th floor: still somewhat interested in living, but fragile. Post-lunch nap at my sister’s house: weak and tired. Maison Tara care home: in freefall. Collonge Bellerive Palliative Hospital: waiting to die, focused on only the basic needs — sleep, too hot, shivering with cold, needing the loo, thirsty or so terribly hungry but unable to eat. Unable to walk, unable to sit up, unable to turn over, unable to see, unable to talk, unable to be awake. He dissolved before us.
We captured his end perfectly. The steady gaze of his pale blue eyes a reflection of no future. A ghost man, bravely facing the final reckoning. Living, uncomplainingly, somewhere between life — and us, his family — and death, his death.
They say you should remember people in life, not sickness or death. But you can’t erase the death. So now we live, one special one down, one life erased — and many more to go. It is our constant. Our invisible worm in the night. Our first thought in the morning, our last thought as we turn off the light. Our wild imaginings, our heavy, knowing comprehension. Our terrifying unknown. Our inevitable. My dead Dad.
On receiving his own bleak cancer diagnosis, the writer and neurosurgeon, Paul Kalinithi, explained , “Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”[i]
In those last weeks of my father’s life, the periods of darkness grew longer and as his body shut down, one function after another, one light would flicker every so often — fleetingly — as he scratched his head, or smiled at a family joke. Despite the insufferable loss of self, there he was.
And then he wasn’t.
It was a reminder of how little we know about the inevitable. It was a short encounter with darkness before the lights came on again and we all went back to measuring out our lives, albeit dimmed. We saw it just for a brief moment (although I wish I hadn’t). Now we know acutely and there is no other way to live.
[i] Paul Kalinithi, When Breath Becomes Air, Random House, 2016