Thursday, October 14, 2021

Losing my Father: A Blog Post from 2019

Tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of this blog. I've been counting down to that anniversary by re-posting a blog post from each year. I've reached 2019, which is the year I lost my father. I wrote this blog post about it.

I'm going to write a little about losing my father, which has obviously dominated my mental landscape recently. 

It was not a surprise, although it happened sooner than predicted upon his initial diagnosis. When we learned that he had a terminal illness, we were told he might have six months left. We hoped that prognosis was too pessimistic, especially given my father's ability to cheat the Grim Reaper on previous occasions. However, it turned out to be over-generous by many months.

His health had been in decline for several years before that.

My father chose not to speak about his imminent demise. He knew the reality of the situation, as he had been told it by doctors. The priest who performed the Last Rites also told me that he was very aware of what was happening. But, around his family, he never spoke about cancer, death, funerals, or anything like that. Life went on as close to normal as possible, given that he was bed-bound for his last weeks. He watched sports and TV and murder mysteries as usual. His hearing had badly declined, so I spent a lot of time sitting wordlessly at his bed-side, watching TV with him. I wondered if murder mysteries were not a little bit morbid, given the circumstances, but this didn't seem to bother him at all.

Our parish priest once told a story about a monk who was raking leaves. He was asked by a visitor to the monastery what he would do if he heard the world was going to end that very day. He said: "Finish raking these leaves". I suppose that was my father's attitude, too.

Is it cowardly of me that I am very glad he took this approach? I have always found farewells almost unbearably sad, even when they are only temporary. How do you say goodbye to someone you'll never see again in this world? I'd fretted about this for years. In the end, I never had to say goodbye. I realize many people would say I never got to say goodbye. But that's not how I look at it. I'm very grateful there was no goodbye. Some things are just too big for words.

I have always had a rather romanticized notion of a "death bed", based on a hundred newspaper cartoons of a character lying under a bedspread, propped up on pillows, and his family sitting around attentively. I assumed real death wasn't like this, that it was much less graceful and poetic. Surprisingly, I was wrong-- in this case, at least. My father went gently into that good night. It was just like the death-beds I'd encountered in cartoons, jokes, films, and TV shows.

He had no great pain (or so I was told), although he struggled with his breathing. He was asleep for the last few days before death.

I was in the house (it was my brother's house) when he died. He simply stopped breathing. His oldest and best friend was with him when it happened. He came out with a grim face and said, tactfully: "His breathing is very low". A few of us hurried in. It was obvious that the end had come.

Did I see my father die? I was out of the room when his breath stopped, but I'm told he had  a faint pulse for some time after. I was present as it ebbed away to nothing. If this is seeing somebody die, it's the first time I've seen somebody die. It wasn't traumatic, or dramatic.

(Even the famous "death rattle" I had heard about-- a rasping sort of breath, frequent in the last hours of life-- wasn't at all upsetting or sinister.)

I actually asked myself, as I sat by his body, whether my religious faith and my belief in the immortality of the soul seemed any weaker or stronger, at that moment. I have heard reports of both reactions, in the face of bereavement. But I found that neither was the case. It didn't seem to change anything.

However, I was determined I was going to spend as little time as possible looking at the body. After a little while, I left the death room and didn't go back into it. When he was lying in repose in the funeral home, I averted my eyes from the coffin whenever I was around it. I was frightened that the memory of his face in death would superimpose itself over my memories of him smiling, laughing, pontificating. This did happen to some extent with my memories of my mother, who died at the turn of the millennium. (I was also told that the embalming had left him almost unrecognizable-- but even if that wasn't the case, I didn't want to look.)

After he died, the house was full of family and friends. People were drinking tea and whiskey in the kitchen, and hugging and consoling each other in the hall. I went out to the street to pray a decade of the rosary at one point. Everything seemed so ordinary. The world went on, one second at a time.

Hours after his passing, I said to my wife: "Let's go home and watch television. Anything." We did so, although I fell asleep quickly.

I feared that a locomotive of grief was coming down the tracks, with me tied down helplessly. My father is easily the person who influenced me the most. I'd always struggled to even imagine a world without him. The prospect had always seemed apocalyptic to me.

To my surprise, this grief hasn't arrived-- at least, not yet. There is undoubtedly a huge sense of loss. But the icy, overwhelming grief I'd always dreaded...this hasn't overtaken me. I feel very calm and peaceful about it all.

For many years, I'd feared and expected the loss of my father. Every Christmas, every New Year, every St. Patrick's Day, I asked myself: "Is this the last one?". I was conscious of this in every conversation I had with him, and every moment I spent with him. I deliberately avoided doing or saying anything, in my relations with him, which I thought I might regret in the future. This consciousness lay very heavily on me, but I'm grateful for it now. 

Even in little things, I was aware of this. His conversational style often leaned towards the monologue, but I listened very patiently, even when I had heard the monologue many times before. I'm glad I did. (Of course there are things I regret, but not nearly as many as there might have been.)

Since June 2015, I have kept a diary, never missing a day. I am grateful for the many conversations and interactions with my father that I recorded in it. I was especially careful to write down any fragment of family folklore he passed on.

I can't think of anything I wish I'd said to him, that I never said to him.

Seventy-nine was a very good age for him to reach. His lifestyle was anything but healthy. At one point, he smoked sixty cigarettes a day! (Later, he switched to e-cigarettes). He'd been very sick on several previous occasions, and lived to fight another day. I'm grateful he was given so many years, more than I ever expected-- more than he ever expected, as I know from various remarks he made down through the decades.

The last sweet shared tradition we had together was watching Frasier. It became our routine. We would watch three episodes at a time (recorded from TV), and we did at least three complete "laps" of all eleven series. We often had the same reaction to the show, too; sometimes we would agree "This episode is too embarrassing to be enjoyable". (But we would still watch it.)

Another time, when a particularly unpleasant character was getting his come-comeuppance, I said: "I don't like watching this. I hate to see anyone humiliated, even if they deserve it." My father agreed. That is something I took from him. But I took so much from him.

(A related memory: my father lost all respect for a particular Irish athlete, an Olympic gold winner, because he turned to sneer at his opponent in the moment of victory. This despite the enormous importance he placed on Irish success at sports, to the extent that he couldn't even watch the Ireland rugby and soccer internationals, from sheer nerves. Bringing honour to Ireland was important-- but it was even more important to remain a gentleman, or a gentlewoman.)

My biggest regret is that his memoirs, which took up a lot of his attention in his last years, were never published in his lifetime. I hope to see them published eventually. Even as a slice of Irish social and cultural history, I think they deserve to be.

Recently, I had the idea of writing down my memories of him, while they are fresh. My wife thinks this is a good idea. That is the thing I feel most; not grief, but a deep desire to remember him and keep his memory and legacy alive.

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