Seven months later
It’s the first day of winter in Melbourne. I walk into the room to see my father dying. Consumed by the primal need to breathe, lungs inflamed with aspirational pneumonia unable to draw in breath with the ease of the living. We touch, and he squeezes my hand and groans in recognition. His groaning was one of my childhood dislikes but now it’s a blessed sound to hear. He’s run out of words and now this is the best he can muster.
In the soft morning light, the following day, I lie next to him and massage his hands and feet. The love flows like melted snow from my hands to caress the smooth feet that have taken him to some of the most remote places on earth. I stand at the end of his bed in “Wu Ji” Qigong mountain pose, represented by an empty circle. Later, I’m struck by the meaning of these two Daoist words “wu” meaning none and “ji” meaning extreme. Everything and nothing, in an infinite, unlimited, boundless, timeless relationship with life and death. There is no beginning and end to love. The soles of my own feet find roots into the earth and my head reaches up through the clouds. I call all the people that have supported Dad over his lifetime and there they are in a circle around his bed. Their love mingles with mine and there is no turning around in the death space, “non circum coimus”.
Witnessing Dad’s last breaths brings me into the present moment and deeper into my own life. All those petty grievances drop away and an immense love fills the space between breaths. His life, inextricably seen through my lens, comes into sharp focus and letting go is all that remains for both of us. In life and death we are joined, and accompanying his departing is a privilege beyond words.
A mournful keening draws me to the window. It sounds like children crying but it’s sulphur crested white cockatoos on the balcony railing. Their intelligent heads are lowered, eyes soft and beaks slightly open, calling to the spirit world that another is ready to take flight.
The Well Rising
The well rising without sound,
the spring on a hillside,
the plowshare brimming through deep ground
everywhere in the field—
The sharp swallows in their swerve
flaring and hesitating
hunting for the final curve
coming closer and closer—
The swallow heart from wingbeat to wingbeat
counseling decision, decision:
thunderous examples. I place my feet
with care in such a world.*
His departure comes quickly less than 24 hours since I arrived in his room. I’m overwhelmed with a sense that even before his heart stops beating he is off. His spirit is free. Free to roam snow capped mountains and trouble free waters, curvaceous valleys and barren steppes, lush forests with the tallest of timbers. All the wild places that his spirit yearned for since it landed into body and being 88 years, 32,272 days ago.
What does it mean to lose another parent? Does the heart tear in the same place or differently, old rupture lines weak and straining to contain long held griefs? Only time will tell if new exit wounds emerge. Before, the three of us were a triangle, Dad at the apex and Bro and I at the base, parenting our ageing father with tenderness and tenacity. Now it is just a single line that connects my brother and I, nothing behind us, no generation above. The crushing absence, the finality that we are the only two left, me the elder, the matriarch.
What is left for me is the gift of the singular question from the author Ocean Vuong “how do we live a life worthy of our breath?” Dad gave me the gift of time to contemplate and befriend my own death and to explore the wounds of my mother and sister’s passing. Death becomes my theme for 2020, my weird New Year’s resolution to live this year like it’s my last.
My self appointed death walkers are friends with parents on the way to the exit sign, who share their reflections and radical acts of love that sometimes put their own health at risk to be at the bedside of the dying day in day out. Seeing my Dad every 3 months is the best I can do and now, at the moment of his death, what I have done is more than enough. My theme is oddly appropriate for 2020 where death and the fear of death occupy our global pandemic consciousness.
We can never really know each other. At the moment of death the edges glimmer with blurry recognition, the physical body exposed, but the deeper internal spaces – unresolved conflicts and regrets are locked away in cells and tissues, degraded with the weight of their frequency. I can only guess how a slumped shoulder, creases and folds of the body, feet planted just so in the world, reflected any inner turmoil in Dad’s energy field and in his life.
Making sense of the struggle in his relationships and working life doesn’t matter now, as stories and memories flood in from friends and family who knew my Dad in similar and different ways than I. A leader, “El Capitan”, a courageous adventurer, a harmoniser, a lover of community, maker of nicknames, “The Scribe” who loved to form and shape words not unlike the trail left by his telemark turns in the snow.
It’s a visceral sense that his body has gone from the room and I am left standing; emptied out and filled up, permanently saddened and strengthened, finally parentless, an orphan but not alone. Gutted and spent, grateful but deprived. Relieved that he died quickly but mourning more nights and days to commune at his bedside.
Time speeds up as the extinguishment of life, unleashes an avalanche of practicalities to take care of, the planning and enactment of his celebration crowds out my need to grieve in private. Time wants to slow down, so I can take in every minute detail of my surroundings, imprinting in memory the curve of a river gum, a squashed green olive on the pavement, peeling dark brown bark, a gently pruned camellia bush. Everything speaks to me of Dad.
Grief arrives in waves, inconveniently. I’ve dropped my family at the airport and drive around some of my favourite places in Melbourne, deserted on a Sunday morning. Sitting in a cafe, ready to order breakfast the day after our celebrations, I bury my tears not wanting to detract from the other diners’ convivial delight in what was once taken for granted pre COVID – breakfast made by someone else, somewhere else, somewhere lovely, apart from home. Instead I knock a cup of chai over my writing and that’s enough devastation for one day. I put my grief on hold, until I can be in my own space with the freedom to express my vulnerability knowing my family and close friends will understand my brokenness.
Back in my room it’s eerily quiet after the cranking machinery of the death trade. Funeral directors are a funny bunch. Bro and I get caught up in a hilarious Monty Python skit as we navigate the options – off peak cremations cost less, Saturday services more – and push for his ashes to be ready in time for the celebration. We couldn’t have chosen a more auspicious day for his celebration, Saturday 6th June, a “strawberry” moon and partial lunar eclipse. Rumour has it that the official start of the ski season has been delayed as Dad is testing the powder with his motley crew of mates from the Mount Bogong Club.
My mind won’t let me rest as I replay the events of his celebration, in all its minutiae. The songs, the words spoken, the stories brought to life, and the beautiful images of the handsome man that became my father at the age of 25. The memora-BILL-ia table takes the place of an austere coffin and in the centre, his favourite blue enamel teapot holding his ashes. Our motto of inclusivity seems like most of the important people to Dad felt a part of the ceremony, the ones watching online seem to hover like benevolent spirits over the proceedings.
When someone dies their silence becomes a sort of held note, a key on the piano pressed down for so long it becomes an ache in the ear, a new sonic register from which we start to measure our new, ruptured lives. A white noise. Maybe this is why there is so much music in dying: the funerals, the singing, the hymns, the eulogies. All those sounds crowding the air with what the dead can’t say.
I board the plane back home embodied with the gifts Dad gave me – the gift of space and time, the gift of an adventurous life and love of community – and a few surprise packages; a guilty, giddy sense of freedom and release to actually live this year like it is my last. A spacious wisdom and a deeper embodiment of the truth of who I am, from dad and all the people that knew and loved him. “Go climb the mountains of your youth” he implored and I write my bucket list as the plane descends.
Stay or leave?
Do we choose the moment of our death?
Or does our contract with life expire at some predetermined time?
Do we enter life with the first breath,
Fully inhabit and live, knowing our last breath may leave any moment?
How do we stay and how do we leave?
A few weeks ago I looked over my shoulder and saw emptiness.
The shocking vacancy left by death.
A little girl looking behind, waiting for her father
To run together into the temple of wild things.
To rest amongst the high plains of wildflowers and let peace find its way home.
Wandering alone through the bush near my home,
Now when I look, I see a vast, full, tender expanse of awareness.
A ripeness and maturity of a life come full circle.
Carrying the vision and resources of my ancestors inside me.
Now it is him I see in the grey, smooth, ghost like gum
Against the brimming blue impossible sky.
A bough for the resting cockatoo and the chattering lorikeets.
Why when he leaves do I see more clearly?
In absence, nothingness, there is everything.
In presence, reverence, everything is transformed.
I emerge from the space between dying and death transformed.
The essence of who I am, I can stop running from now.
*This poem was chosen by my sister Susanna to read at Dad’s 70th birthday. It was reread by my daughters at Dad’s end of life celebration.