That’s the thing with death. You don’t know it’s coming, even when you know it’s coming…
My dad passed away at 5:30 p.m. on November 29, 2013 during a routine visit to the hospital for a blood transfusion. He’d been sick for years with a serious blood disorder that he managed quite stoically, considering the bi-weekly blood transfusions he endured for years. But what finally ended his life were two debilitating bouts of C. difficile after a blood infection landed him in the ER.
Despite his weakening condition and the severe weight loss, he remained the stubborn, defiant, short-tempered man I’d known all my life. He made a terrible patient and I suspect a part of him reveled in that. It was his way of “raging”, of not “going quietly into the night.”
“You need to eat to get stronger,” my brother would tell him as he placed his meal in front of him.
“Maybe I will,” my dad would reply.
“And maybe I won’t,” he would mumble under his breath as my brother walked away.
Everyone knows that death is an inevitability; that the stabbing pain you feel, that weighted anchor on your chest that makes it hard to breathe, is the price you pay for having ever felt love.
But knowing that still doesn’t make it any easier. It doesn’t prepare you for the quiet shock waves, this strange treasonous ability to still function, shake hands, wash the dishes, utter words, eat, laugh; make love, as if your life hasn’t suddenly been irrevocably changed and seared by loss.
It’s like the world is forever divided into before and after. Before, you had a father. His name was Peter and he had a distinctive look and a distinctive sound, and he took up space in his favourite armchair and he liked to talk back to the TV and he was yours.
In the before, you were someone’s oldest and he jokingly called you his ‘tornado’ when you came to visit because you were loud and opinionated and you apparently made too much noise when you walked around the house.
In the before he was there in the background; like a constant presence in a life rendered way too busy by work and relationships and obligations that now seem impossibly small and unimportant to have kept you from him.
In the after, he is no more. He’s gone. That person no longer exists. You could search the whole world two times over and never come across him. He’s nowhere to be found.
My old-school Greek dad wouldn’t say “I love you.” Instead, he’d say “come on by and see how the peach tree is growing.” It was code for “I miss you”.
My old-school Greek dad wouldn’t compliment me to my face because to praise your children too much equated to giving them an inflated sense of worth. I would find out how proud he was of me through family friends and acquaintances. This reluctance to lavish too much love always made me laugh. Who can ever be damaged by too much love? But when you’ve spent time around people deluded into believing their own greatness and warped sense of entitlement you learn to appreciate the gift of perspective.
I have my father’s lips. I never noticed before he passed away, but now that’s all I see when I look at my face. They’re his lips. There’s something immensely comforting about that knowledge; about how his genes live on in me, in my sister’s eyes and in my brother’s unruly full head of hair. I like seeing bits of him wander the earth, like a parting gift I take solace in when nothing can comfort me over his absence in this world.
An absence that has such a presence… a void that seems to take up so much space, it overwhelms me. I look at pictures of him with a sideways glance because I can’t bear the full impact of his loss yet. I look and look away. I wait a minute and come back. It’s the only way I can handle looking at his image without breaking down. I don’t dare look at any video footage yet.
A few Christmases ago we bought my dad a cellphone as a way to keep track of him when he would spend his days at the mall with all his other retired buddies. They’d sit around the food court drinking bottomless cups of coffee and reminisce, debate, argue, philosophize. Every Greek is a philosopher someone once told me, and I’m convinced it’s true.
Old Greek men slow down the cadence and rhythm of their voice when you make the mistake of engaging in a conversation with them. No one fully employed has the time to listen to their responses in completion. You ask a simple “How are you?” and they launch into a long-winded diatribe about what that question even means and what is happiness anyway?
My dad was a man of few words. He’d never answer his cellphone. A thousand missed calls. Never once checked his messages. We used to joke about it. Mockingly tell him he was purposefully evading us, but we all knew that, with fading eyesight and increasing hearing loss, he rarely heard those calls. But he loved that phone. It still felt like a lifeline to those who sought to find him.
We buried him with that cellphone in his breast pocket. We each took turns leaving a personal message and buried him with it, knowing that – in customary fashion — he would never answer. Knowing (hoping) he already knew what we had to say.
I’ve inherited my dad’s easy temper and irrational urge to occasionally obsess over things that ultimately don’t matter. My mom, when exasperated with me, would exclaim sighing: “You’re just like your father!” It was meant as recrimination, but it never bothered me, because I knew that I also inherited his insatiable passionate appetite for life and his child-like ability to revel in the here and now. I always felt it was a good trade-off.
I am slowing getting used to the knowledge that some things are irrevocable. That I will never again get to talk to him, kiss him; piss him off. I will never have the opportunity to have one more moment with him, knowing fully well that even if I had that moment, I’d hunger for just one more.
That first week I wore his flannel shirt and sat on the couch in my parents’ living room, next to the armchair that used to be his usual spot. No one sits in it now. No one has the heart to. I wish his flannel shirt still had his scent but it doesn’t. We haven’t spoken about it openly, but I know without a doubt that my mom still hasn’t washed his pillowcase on his side of a bed they shared for 50 years.
From the moment I opened my eyes to the moment he closed his, we were in each other’s lives. Walks side by side, Greek homework, hands pushing my swing, him in the crowd as I played my high-school basketball games, heated arguments at the dinner table as I went through my teenage communist phase, much to the dismay of a man with a Conservative right-leaning streak… “What do YOU know about communism?” he would yell at me, mortified that Marxism had entered his home.
All these memories intertwine and weave themselves into a tapestry; a blanket of comfort I cover myself in. I cling to any new morsel of information, any anecdote old friends and family share with me. I scour attentively all the old pictures seeing my dad for the first time. An impossibly young man in the Greek army riding a motorcycle, a dapper-looking new Canadian immigrant in his 20s, a proud business man in front of his first restaurant, a father and husband in his 30s, a tanned smiling 45-year-old in his Montreal Expos baseball hat vacationing in Greece, a smiling grandfather with grey hair posing in front of his pride and joy; the orange grove he planted in his homeland with his own hands. These memories, these moments, these snapshots are his life. They’re mine too.
Seven months later and I’m still stunned by the palpable pain I feel in the pit of my chest when I think of him. I marvel at how grief just patiently sits there quietly, waiting for me to suddenly catch a glimpse of someone who looks like him, or for a whiff of someone’s Aqua Velva aftershave, that cheap blue stuff he splashed on his face when I was a kid, and suddenly pain, like a searing knife, cuts through me. Like a barely formed scab that’s violently scraped off, it starts to pulsate and throb. Nothing assuages it. Nothing but life, as the petty problems of the living take over once again, and you move on to the next preoccupation that dulls your sadness until the next time.
Seven months of firsts. The first Christmas without him, first New Years’ celebrations, first Easter, and now… the first Father’s Day.
These milestones aren’t necessarily any harder than any other days, although friends have told me that the first of everything is the toughest. But these markers… they serve to remind me of what I’ve lost and will never get back.
On one of the last times I found myself by his hospital bedside, I gently combed his thinning grey hair and shared silly details of my day. As he sat up in his hospital chair, eyes closed, almost purring with pleasure at the touch of my hand on his head, he whispered: “Thank you for keeping me company.”
I looked at him surprised to see that he had tears welling up in his eyes. I found myself speechless… that someone I owed so much to would consider something so small a favour, an act even worth acknowledging.
I still cling to that moment when I think of all the things I could have done, all the time I could have spent with him and didn’t, all the things I didn’t say. Those ‘could have’s’ can haunt you if you let them. You musn’t let them. My dad knew how much I loved him. I know how much he loved me too.
Ray Bradbury wrote that death is a “stopped watch, a loss, an end, a darkness. Nothing.”
He was right, of course. But he was also wrong.
Death isn’t nothing to those left behind. It’s everything. It takes over, it consumes, it’s exhausting and all-encompassing; it alters everything.
It’s exactly like love.