The call came in at two fifteen in the ante merīdiem, more or less thirty minutes after I drifted off to sleep. Thirty minutes of sleep that accomplished nothing following the day’s trek back home.
“Get to the hospital. Now.” The exact words have since blurred into the distance, an unimportant tidbit lost in a sea of tidbits. But the crux of the message was exactly thus: I had to get to the hospital. Now.
The previous day, Dad called. I was the last person on his list. A list of goodbyes; a list of loved ones that he needed some form of closure with. We spoke. We chatted. We had a jolly old time. We didn’t say goodbye; we didn’t get closure. Instead, the effort of forming words grew too difficult for him. His morning of goodbyes had drained him to the point of no longer being able utter that simple compound. Not physically, not emotionally.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said.
“How nice” was his very un-Dadlike response. No humour, no reaction to me embarking on a journey for one last visit with him. “How nice.”
The old man was fading. Cancer, the wretched enemy he had been fighting for many years—including many years longer than the doctors thought possible—was winning the war, this literal battle of life and death. A stubborn old man to the very end, Dad continued to fight this war. He had managed to claim some victories in this war of his, but he suffered many more losses.
That jolly old time was the last conversation we shared.
I was leaving the afternoon of that conversation, giving me enough time to return home and say goodbye. To spend a few days with Dad while his lifeforce was still contained within his body.
How do you say goodbye, I wondered throughout the journey. How do you have that conversation with the strongest man you know, a man still determined to win the war? How do you say goodbye to a man acting like he’s some kind of superhero pulling that last-minute Hail Mary out of his arse during that computer generated climax, and wouldn’t entertain the notion that, somehow, he could lose?
I couldn’t admit it at the time, but at two fifteen, I realised you simply do not have that conversation: not when it is too late.
Upon arriving at the hospital, I swapped facemasks. I swapped from the comfortable, sexy, all-black little number that was covering my mouth and nose to the uncomfortable, disposable mask courtesy of the hospital—in the age of COVID-19, you can’t be too careful, after all.
The palliative nurse told me that Dad had been distressed. So distressed, in fact, that he had escaped his bed. Upon this triumphant escape, he somehow made it all the way to the floor…with a mighty thud as his body collapsed against it. The crash didn’t prevent him from making it any further. No, the cancer managed to do that all on its own—what a clever disease.
“Hi Dad,” I managed to muster, “How are you?”
I knew he wasn’t able to answer me—the man was unconscious, each pained breath moving in and out of his lungs as quickly as a stoned snail, while still managing to wreak as much havoc as a rhinoceros on speed—but I still waited for a response. I heard a grunt, and maybe—just maybe—he was about to answer. He didn’t; he simply inhaled air into his lungs. What felt like hours later, I heard a groan, and again, hopefully, he was about to answer. He didn’t; he simply exhaled that air back into the room.
There was no answer; just deafening silence, broken only by the breaths he forced himself to breathe, breaths that hurt him each time. Each. And. Every. Fucking. Time.