Watching dad fade away was one of the most horrific things I’ve endured….and I’ve had a few!
It’s 2005. I’m living down in Tasmania working as the State Youth Director for the Baptist churches. I’ve been delivering leadership and development training to an amazing group of young adults and preparing for a state youth camp. 10 years on and it seems like a blur, but this is vaguely how I recall things unfolding.
Unbeknownst to me my youngest brother and dad were scheduled to fly from Melbourne to surprise me for my birthday. The fact that dad was going to go out of his way was significant in itself. Since the age of 12 dad had never been a regular part of my life. There’d been numerous disappointments, broken promises, seeming disinterest and times I’d wanted to disown him. Thankfully over our adult years we’d talked openly, robustly about life choices, failure, feelings and forgiveness and established a healthy adult-to-adult relationship. Dad was no saint, but we’d buried the past. For that I’m forever thankful.
The news came through from my brother: “Dad’s had a seizure, had a fall, and they’ve identified that he’s got a brain tumour.” A million thoughts raced through my mind. Memories flashed before my eyes.
I put in motion to handover the running of the camp to my volunteer leaders – all now professionals of influence in their respective spheres – one a minister, another a Clinical Psychologist, the other a state manager for a cancer-related organisation; and promptly flew to Melbourne. As I sat with dad and his partner I learnt the enormity of his grade 4 inoperable cancer. The air was thick as we sat on that bench in the foyer of the Austin hospital.
We talked openly, shedding many tears as we awaited his exploratory surgery, having been warned that any brain surgery was risky. They weren’t hopeful of being able to access the primary tumour, lodged between the two hemispheres of his brain. I recall vividly dad’s comments that he loved me and was proud of me – one of the few times I’d heard him say so. What mattered now wasn’t what had happened, what mattered now was what mattered.
The post-op diagnosis was ambiguous. There was simply no way of knowing how long he had. Radiation treatment began and for months we endured the 6 weekly meetings with his oncologist to find out the latest MRI results. Each visit brought its own anxiety and apprehension. Result updates were pushed out to every 3 months until…until the day dad had another fall and another hit to the head. This time however his ocassional respite hospital visits became a permanent bed. He’d had a stroke and this time wasn’t going home. The next couple of years were horrible watching his slow decline.
Before this we’d talked almost daily on the phone and caught up in person often several times a week. Most memorable to me was the time he rang me as I’m sitting on a 12 seater tour bus travelling beside the Dead Sea in Israel. “Dad, what are you doing? This is going to cost you a fortune!” His reply, “I don’t care, I want to see how my son is.” Dad knew that when I returned from this month long trip I was returning to an unknown future; we both knew my marriage was over and that life would change forever. Neither of us could foresee how big a change that time would reveal.
The day I discovered dad’s body I’d had this overwhelming urgency that I needed to go and see dad. I’d loaded my sons into the car having dealt patiently with frustrations of boisterous delays. Normally we’d meander through the nursing home that dad had lived in for the past few years, but for some unexplainable reason I’d suggested the boys wait in the car this time. I think deep down I knew.
I walked into the room to see a sight not unfamiliar to me. I remember being thankful that I’d been the one to find him. Relieved it wasn’t any of my siblings and glad it wasn’t his wife. I didn’t want them to see him like this. I could cope. I’d conducted funerals, and seen death up close on many occasions. But this was different, this was my dad. And now dad was dead.
I know I was relieved in that moment, thankful his suffering was over. Seeing someone you love fade away is horrible. I remember one time I’d sat with dad for about half-an-hour. The TV was on some random channel and we’d sat in silence, he was no longer communicative; hadn’t been for a long time. As I leant over to say goodbye I said “Dad, I’m so sorry that life is like this for you.” With a clarity not seen for months and months his eyes fixed on mine and he mumbled “It’s horrible isn’t it.” He knew precisely what was going on and I will never forget that look he gave me. It was as if his soul spoke to mine.
Saying goodbye to dad was deeply personal and I won’t go into the full depths of this. Divorce, disease, death – it’s common to our humanity. How we deal with these heart-breaks not only testifies to our own resilience and capacity, it showcases our values.
I’ve read that the top 5 regrets of the dying are:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me;
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard;
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings;
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends;
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
I find it valuable to check-in on these 5 really important values every so often, you might also. Or perhaps you have some other values to tune-into life. ,
I now wear dad’s signet ring, something he’d pledged to me for my 21st. The day his wife handed it over to me saying “This belongs to you and your dad wanted me to promise it would be the first thing I’d give you.” I balled my eyes out! It’s a symbolic reminder of all that transpired.
It’s important to have closure; it’s good to have hope for a better future; and it’s good to remember how we got to be where we are and who’s played a part in shaping us. What mattered now wasn’t what had happened, what mattered now was what mattered.
Living in the moment is way too important to simply let happen. Living in the moment requires intentionality and decisions that reflect our values. What matters to you?