My father died a few months ago. I watched him do it. Since then I have been “processing” the experience, although I don’t know don’t like that term – it reminds me of processed food. Is there a better one? Grieving? Mourning? These words seem little better, for I have no idea what they really mean, what they are supposed to feel like. When I think of it I feel sad, which suggests that that they are in the right ballpark. Not that I think of it a lot, though. Just sometimes, when the house is quiet and the washing machine of my mind comes to a moment of rest between cycles. Images appear in that space in my mind: of Dad, grey and drawn, his eyes glazed, mumbling incoherently, or reaching for something no-one else could see. I don’t miss him, especially. I just remember.
My father and I were not close. He was not capable of it in any sense that I would understand that. He had a terribly childhood full of poverty and abuse and grew into a man of his time who didn’t speak of things like feelings. He was a drunk, too, and it eventually made him ill. This happened long ago, when I was a small child. I have only fleeting images of my father before he became ill; I remember him giving me five cents to make me stop crying after a fight with my brothers. Him drying my hair with a towel in front of the fire in the lounge room when I was five. He used to wrap my head in the towel and pretend to be a tiger mauling me. I do this now, with my friends’ kids. He was a primary school teacher and loved children. But then he became ill and the memories are of visiting Dad in hospital. We mostly played on the lawns outside. Dad at home, in bed. Don’t go into Mum and Dad’s room. Don’t bother Dad.
He left not long after that. He stopped drinking, but it wasn’t a pleasant environment: there was much shouting, fighting, violence and fear. My mother came into our cubby hut one wintery day during the May school holidays and, crouching on the floor, asked us how we would feel if she and Dad separated for a while. I asked how long for, and she said forever.
Dad took the family’s only asset – the caravan – and moved to the Council caravan park by the lake. I liked it there. We visited on Saturday afternoons, and walked down to Kentucky Fried Chicken and bought lunch to eat by the lake. I remember the thick soft bed of couch grass, and feeding leftover chips to the seagulls. Dad loved animals. Then we walked back to the caravan. Once I fell into the lake, showing off how I could walk along the narrow metal lip around the edge. I remember my face burning with shame as Dad tried to dry some of my clothes while my brothers taunted me. Then we played cards. He taught us euchre and gin rummy, and I am still a dab hand at poker. He used to save his coins to gamble with: whatever we won, we were allowed to keep. It was welcome pocket money that our mother could not afford. Afterwards we rode our bikes home.
Dad was ill, though. He became more ill after he and Mum split up. Dad in hospital. Each time he came home, he seemed weaker, older. He began using a walking stick, and he was only fifty. Dad in hospital at Christmas. One of his friends appeared outside our house, and produced presents from the boot of his Ford Falcon. He said they were from Dad. I asked Mum if we would see Dad at Christmas and she said no. I didn’t hear from Dad on my eleventh birthday. Three days later I got a telegram that said Happy 12th birthday. He was in hospital again that Christmas and we did see him; he said he would be out in a couple of days and to come and visit at New Year. When we arrived, we found the caravan gone. No Dad. We rode home again and told Mum. ‘Gone?’ she asked. ‘Where?’ We didn’t know.
He re-appeared at easter, standing on the doorstep in the rain. He had shaved off his moustache, I noticed. He said he had been staying with a friend and wanted us to visit and that he had bought us some easter eggs. When we went, Dad seemed different. He wasn’t interested in our stories, just his own. And he repeated them. He exaggerated. He seemed...child-like. Nobody said anything.
He was soon back at the caravan park, but he had changed. He could not remember anything, and took to writing down everything he did in endless lists. He couldn’t manage things. He would become frustrated trying to tune the radio and throw it into the lake, then write it down on his list. He didn’t eat and got meals on wheels but he didn’t like the food and threw that into the lake, too. He kept a count of the meals on his list. He had been a signaller once in the Air Force and used strange codes. The caravan was dirty. It smelled. In summer, with the air conditioner going, the door closed and Dad smoking, the smell turned my stomach.
My brothers stopped visiting. I still went. I got to keep the change every time I went to get KFC for Dad. He insisted on having the same thing every time, and always ate it in the same order. Then we always played cards, and I always got to keep the money afterwards. Always the same. Perhaps that is why I went which is something that, as an adult, I have often wondered about. There was something slightly comforting about this mad, gentle man. And he was always pleased to see me. He adored me. It was much better than the anger and shouting at home.
It didn’t stop me wanting him to die, though. I wanted a story that I could tell to the girls at school. The ones who saw me with my father when he went to do his shopping. Tottering along with his walking stick in his dishevelled clothes. He always bought the same things from the same place. He always flirted inappropriately with the lady at the supermarket, and I was always embarrassed to be seen with him.
When I was thirteen and he got bowel cancer, and I thought he really would die. He was in hospital for a long time. Visiting him there was awful. My mother insisted on coming with me and I sat between them as my father ignored us and told his stories to the bloke in the next bed. Then when he tried to sit up, his colostomy bag fell off and liquid shit poured out. It ran all over the bed and splashed onto the floor. “It’s time for us to leave,” my mother said firmly.
He did not die, though. “The doctor said he keeps a list of ticks and crosses and he has put a tick against my name!” Dad told us triumphantly. He didn’t die the next time, either, when he asked me to call an ambulance to the caravan and read to him from the bible before he died. Or the next, when the doctor called and said Dad was in hospital and had had a stroke. Or the next, when someone from the caravan park called and said he had been found lying unconscious in the street. He was just a little more frail each time. A little madder. There was no story to tell.
And so it went. After I left home I wrote to him, and always got a letter back with a $10 bill enclosed. I came out to him on a Christmas visit when I was 22. He didn’t care and didn’t want to talk about it. “Good god, that’s your business,” he said. He must have cared, though, because he remembered. In fact, it was the only thing about my life that he ever remembered.
He called in 1992 – he never called – and said that he was going into a nursing home and needed someone to help him move out of the caravan park. I called my brothers, who lived just a couple of hours away in Melbourne. They refused to help. So I borrowed a friend’s car and drove down. Dad had already gone, and I slept in that filthy caravan alone. He said he didn’t want anything, that he had everything he needed. He was convinced he was about to die. The cupboards were filled with years of junk. And everywhere lists and writings. ‘My name is Ron Groves and I was born in Melbourne in 1926’. Over and over, to remind himself who he was. I packed up whatever I thought I might use and threw the rest away. A second hand dealer gave me $800 for the caravan. Dad said I could keep the money.
The letters kept coming. The loony letters, I called them, and took to regaling my friends with their contents when we were stoned. One contained a cheque for $5000. Another contained just a quote from a newspaper that Dad had copied out. “A man was on trial for rape. The judge asked if he had anything to say and he replied, ‘I’m a man and I can do anything I like.’” Why did he send this, I wondered? But there’s no future in psychoanalysis – not in my family.
I was thirty when I got that letter. They kept coming for another fifteen years, Dad’s handwriting getting gradually more laboured. In the last few years he finally stopped writing. Deaf now, he couldn’t speak on the phone either. He couldn’t walk at all and slowly he became incontinent, too. He passed the days watching TV with sub-titles, in his room. He didn’t like group activities at the nursing home – he couldn’t hear, anyway. He went to meals but refused to eat most of what was served, unless it was ice cream. I rang sometimes, and asked the staff how he was. Sometimes they rang me, to let me know when he was ill or had been taken to hospital.
When I visited for his birthday this year, the staff looked at me strangely, differently. There was solicitude in their eyes. Nobody said anything but I got the message. Dad could barely move and sat slumped in a chair. I had only been home a few days when emails started arriving. They talked about ‘having things in place’ and ‘your wishes’. What about his wishes, I wondered? When I got back it was obvious that Dad was in no state to communicate his wishes about anything. A tiny, twisted stick figure, he was barely aware that I was there. I felt ill, frightened. The next day he was much better, sitting up in bed and telling stories. Another false alarm, I thought, and made arrangements to go home.
When I went to say goodbye things had changed again. He was back in bed, moaning with distress, his eyes glazed, desperately ill. He reached into his nappy and pulled out his penis, wrinkled and shrunken. He tugged at it, repetitively, staring at me. His eyes were vacant – I don’t know if he realised I was there. A urinary tract infection was all I could think of. I called the nurse, who just shrugged. “He has already been given painkillers,” she said.
“They aren’t working. I think he has a urinary tract infection. Can you call the doctor?”
“But it’s Saturday,” she said. “It will cost $200 to get a doctor here.”
“I will give you $200. Please call a doctor. Now.”
She walked off grumpily and left me alone with my father, repetitively twisting and squeezing his penis. The minutes lurched by. One hour. An hour and a half. Two hours. What kind of oedipal torture is this, I wondered?
I called my brother. “He’s much worse,” I told him. “You need to come, asap.”
“It’s really difficult with work,” my brother said. “And besides, if he’s dying, what does it matter if I’m there or not?”
It matters because we are moral people, I thought. “It’s up to you,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
He did come and so did my friend Jason, who drove down from Sydney to help. And thus began our week of vigil. Of sitting by his bed, watching. At first he seemed to improve. His temperature came down and he ate. He spoke a few words and understood simple messages. We wrote them down in big letters and held them in front of him. “Essendon won yesterday,” I wrote, and he smiled. But mostly we sat in silence. He moaned when he wanted something or was in pain. I held his hand and stroked his hair, because I thought that is what I would like someone to do for me.
The staff came and went to give him drugs or change his nappy and I used the opportunity to make phone calls. “It’s good that you’re there,” said one friend. “At least you get to say whatever you need to say to your father.” It took me a moment to understand what she meant. What could I possibly need to say to him? I went back inside as the staff finished changing the bed and wrote a note. “I love you,” I wrote, because I thought that was the right thing to say in the circumstances. He smiled.
My brother took a turn watching and I went back to my hotel, but there was little sleep. An image of Dad’s face sat frozen in my mind. By Tuesday he was no longer lucid at all. He tried to speak, but none of us could understand what he was saying. He stopped eating altogether, and drank only in sips. The staff brought me a big chair and I slept in that. Fitfully, one eye on Dad. On Wednesday he stopped drinking. His mouth hung open, his tongue swollen.
“It can’t be much longer,” said Jason. “If he has stopped eating and drinking it will be three days max.” On Wednesday night I barely slept at all, just lay curled in my chair. The lights dimmed, there was no noise except for Dad’s gasping breath. Dawn was grey and soft. The staff brought me toast from the kitchen. All around me there was kindness and gentleness. The staff began to arrive one by one, often as they were finishing their shifts. “I’m not rostered on again until next week,” one woman said, by way of explanation. “I just wanted to...” Her voice trailed off.
On Thursday night Jason insisted that I sleep. I had no objection and took a sleeping tablet. But I had barely lain down when Dad’s breath changed again. Chain-stoking, Jason called it. I rubbed his back. My brother held his hand. The night grew quiet. I could feel Dad’s heartbeat: da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. One hour. Two. His breath grew slower and slower and his heart skipped a beat, and then gave a half-beat. Da. And then nothing. It just stopped.
“I don’t think he’s breathing at all now,” my brother said softly.
“No,” Jason concurred. “I’ll get the nurse.”
I took my hand away. Dad’s eyes lay open slightly, vacant and still. This is what death is like, I thought. This is what I have to look forward to.
We stayed there for another four days until the funeral was over. I couldn’t wait to get home. When I did I had to go back to work straight away. There was a vague sense of wanting to be alone, of wanting space, space to work it out, space to understand, but it never happened.
Instead my father appears in my dreams, a non sequitur in the middle of a story that didn’t make much sense anyway. Much like when I am awake, in fact. I can see his dying face now. Another memory. A slew of memories, like playing poker with him in his caravan. Riding my bike to school on frosty mornings in winter. Dandelions in spring. The blazing blue skies of summer. These memories wash around inside me like water. As present as the cup I just put down, as real as the rain I hear on the roof now. Like water in water, they wash around. Until they stop.