Death is all around us. We routinely watch people getting blown away on television and in movies, read about it in books and everyday in the newspaper. But it is a different beast when it visits you personally. Nothing can prepare you for the death of someone you love.
My father died when I was twenty-two, one month after I had graduated from university. He was a journalist, and I, wanting to follow in his footsteps, had majored in journalism. I haven’t published a written word since his death, now eighteen years ago.
He was a lion of a man. Physically he was tall and striking, with an unmistakable baritone voice. He was the center of any room around which all others orbited. In our family he was undisputably the sun, and we, the children and our mother, the planets.
He was opinionated and loved to argue, hot tempered but also as excitable as a child. He lived for occasions and elections, during either of which it was not uncommon to enter our house and find him running laps around our living areas. The nursery rhyme ditty “when he was up, he was up; and when he was down he was down” applied to him perfectly. You knew which one he was the second you crossed the threshold of our house. If he was up, his enthusiasm was infectious and there was no better place to be in the world. If he was down, we tiptoed around and avoided his dark being like the plague.
He was the first person I wanted to talk to when anything happened, the first person I wanted to see when I disembarked from a plane, the person I most wanted to succeed in life for. When he died, just as I was about to launch the me that was me, all of a sudden any and all of my aspirations also died. My path in life seemed suddenly of little consequence. With no one to share my achievements with, achieving anything seemed rather pointless. He was the north on my compass. Without him, my life operated like a pinball machine, with me as the ball being batted around senselessly.
He had cancer in his bone marrow, multiple myloma is what the doctor’s called it. But he had cancer before, and had his bladder removed as a result. He had also survived a heart attack when I was young. I stubbornly thought he was invincible, right up until we turned off his life support. I actually thought once we disconnected all of those lines and tubes he would sit up and say, “it’s bloody well about time you did that!”. The optimism of youth, or sheer stupidity, I’m not sure which.
It was inconceivable to me, as we walked out of the hospital shortly after, that cars continued to drive and people sauntered on their way on the sidewalk, when my whole world had just collapsed. It was an out of body experience. Everything had changed, yet nothing had changed.
I went home, went to his closet and took out one of his favourite sweaters that still smelled like him. I privately wore it and hugged it at night, like a blanket, for weeks, until it needed to be washed and then lost his scent.
Occasionally, but only very occasionally, I have the most lucid dreams of him. He is with me again, in my life, his presence palpable. When I wake from these dreams I want to stay in bed all day, savouring and remembering every morsel of what had transpired. Had he visited me, like an angel? Had he sent me a message?
Once on the tube in London I saw a man that so looked like my father, even had his beautiful thick silver hair, that it took my breath away. I stared at him, awestruck, and when he got off at the next stop (very likely unnerved by my behaviour), I cried.
I am now approaching middle age, a time of reflection, and am struck by the difference in myself after he died. I had once walked with a purpose, striding quickly and impatiently through life. Once he was gone my pace slackened, my direction became uncertain, and I strolled uncaringly and aimlessly.
I often wonder at the huge impact his death had on my life. It didn’t leave me orphaned, after all. I still had a mother and brothers and sisters, friends and even lovers. But an integral piece is missing that doesn’t ever get filled, it just remains missing, and you learn to live, somehow, with the missing piece. Good things that happen just aren’t quite as good, the world has lost a bit of its lustre.
As I tell people, and people tell me, life goes on, and so it does, but in a forever changed sort of way.