Regret, guilt, grief, disbelief, longing, confusion and relief – trying to make sense of loss
The other night I dreamt about my father. I had some errands to run on the local high street and he came along. First I went into the wrong shop. Then I went into the right shop, but I had forgotten to bring something I needed for what I’d come for. All the while he patiently followed me around, unflustered and smirking graciously at my stupidity. He never spoke though.
I’d have to go back to get what I needed. He sat down on bench and I figured he was tired and would wait for me there. When I got back home I told everyone I had to hurry as he was waiting for me. Everyone looked at me with a mixture of confusion and surprise, quickly replaced by sadness and sympathy.
Don’t I remember? I had laid him to rest myself. Suddenly I did remember. But my reaction was quite contrary. ‘Oh shit – WHO did we bury? We buried the wrong guy! We made a mistake, dad is not dead!’ I insisted.
This was a dream not a movie, so I didn’t rush back to find he was no longer on the bench, instead I awoke. I lay there in a haze, trying desperately to metaphorically fan away the mental fog, and realign what I knew to be reality with what I realised was imaginary. Somewhere in between I tried to draw an interpretation of any kind from it all. But I don’t read dreams.
It’s been nearly five months since my father died on 5th April. It’s sometimes hard to remember that he is no longer with us, that he is no more somewhere in the periphery of my bumbling life. No more ever-present; formerly at the forefront, and more recently in the backdrop of my existence in this world.
He is no longer there to be a pillar of support, an inspiration, a guide, a mentor, an admonisher, a scolder, a judge, a safety net, a need, a drain, a problem, a solution, a squeeze on the shoulder, a slap in the face, a comforting embrace, a plead for strength, an adult, a child, an emotional bond… a father.
I had seen him only a couple of months prior to his death. I’d flown back to London to take him for a medical test he was quite worried about. I wasn’t needed of course. But I think he just wanted the moral support of his eldest son. At the hospital he looked at me with anxious eyes, asking me if I would go in with him for the procedure – I wondered if over 35 years ago I might have given him the same look about something.
He would have, of course, been at my side. I’m ashamed, desperately ashamed now, to say I didn’t go. I couldn’t. Hospital’s make me squeamish at the best of times. I was afraid I’d pass out myself, much less be any support. But there was something else: a deeper upheaval of the father-son dynamics that I just could not cope with. I couldn’t bear this reversal in positions. I felt disorientated.
I was perhaps blinded by the avatar of the superhero I always saw when I perceived him. I allowed myself to be slave to my own sentimental delusions. I could not see past my own false projection of him, and accept the greatly aged, stooped and ravaged with illness person that he had become. I could not, would not, allow myself to recognise that. He was no-longer the upstanding self-assured, extremely independent and self-reliant man of bearing, and of fortitude that I had known. Yet I steadfastly could only see the elegance, etiquette, good grace and great dignity that I knew and remembered; even as the failings, the lapses, the chinks in the armour I had believed was invulnerable, became starkly apparent.
That just couldn’t be my father, could it? But it was my father. And perhaps that finally hit afterwards. They had found something, possibly a tumour, the Doctors woudn’t say. More tests would be needed. But I had to return to the UAE. The tests could continue, I’d be back if any serious procedure was required, I truthfully promised, even as I knew I’d be little more help than merely being a presence.
However my father appeared to have resolved himself to… to what? A release perhaps? ‘If this is how it ends, then let it be. I’m 82, how much more will I live?’ He wasn’t just resigned, he was also annoyed, disgusted, fed up, somewhat aggrieved.
He’d lived an honourable and honest life, never did a wrong, strived for the right path even when it was harder and more punitive, he was religious (but not strict upon others) – he’d done seven Hajj and countless Umra having twice lived in Jeddah, so why this ignominious and tormenting finale?
He was always a reserved man, prim and proper – the sort who’d wear a blazer and tie to a family picnic. He didn’t seem willing to endure the indignity of repeated hospital visits as a pensioner who everyone treats like a senile delinquent, nor did he really seem up for the ferocious fight that a battle with any kind of cancer inevitably entails – both physically or mentally.
Riddled with illnesses during the years since his retirement, addled by the umpteenth drugs he was on – most it seemed designed to treat (hardly effectively) a side effect caused by another – and suffering a slow decline into physical weakness and mental confusion, it was agonising to witness. It was incomprehensible that this figure of stoic strength had fallen apart physically, and that his spirit was being crushed from without and within.
I hate to admit this to myself even now, because I feel it represents my own unforgiveable and deplorable failure, but my words of encouragement and reassurance were hollow and contrived. ‘You’ll get better. It’ll all be fine. They can cure you.’ Yes, but at what cost physically, mentally, emotionally? Unfortunately these doubts could well have telegraphed across through the faux soothing tone of my voice.
He had always been a man of action, busying himself with whatever needed to be done, always on top of his responsibilities and easily exceeding the expectations of those around him – be that at work or at home. But illness had drained his resolve, physical weakness and disability had ravaged his ageing and tired body. He just wasn’t up for it.
Physical fragility ate away at him, drugs had diminished his sense of smell, he could no longer enjoy his favourite foods. He said to me once in desperate frustration, ‘I can’t even lift Alisha [his youngest granddaughter, a toddler] onto my knee and play with her.’ He fell silent, perhaps stunned by his own confession, perhaps embarrassed to share this weakness with this son. Or, though I may be mistaken, perhaps he was simply trying to withhold the tears. Weeping before his family would be too much of an affront to his self-respect.
Part of me just wanted his pain and torment to end, part of me just wanted him to experience the eternal peace he so deeply deserved. But I don’t really know if that was the more selfish part of me, or if it was the part that wanted him to struggle on, to continue to be a fixed anchor in my life, my mother’s life, my brother and sister’s lives, and in his grandchildrens’ lives – regardless of whatever suffering he would have to endure to remain so.
When the call came through from London that after several days of severe pain he was being admitted into hospital, I initially believe this would be a good thing. I was relieved. Now at last he would receive the care and treatment he needed, and no errant NHS waiting list procedures or his own stubborn obstinacy could delay his treatment any further.
But the next morning the news got worse and worse rapidly, and by the afternoon the message came through that I should fly over immediately. My brother was also here in the Dubai and we both left for the UK. When we both arrived at the hospital he was already plugged into machines, and drips and masks, semi-conscious… a total invalid.
Our entrance caused in him a sudden agitation, there was a tightening grip of my hand, and a torrent of incomprehensible babble. I think, or I’d liked to believe, that I got a flicker of recognition in his eyes. He seemed to be trying to pull everything off, trying to escape the bed, the room, the hospital… the world?
He mouthed nonsense, but he meant something. I tried to draw on a lifetime of familiarity, of instinctively knowing what he meant even when he didn’t actually say it, I tried to comprehend but I’m not sure what I got. Was it anger, was it pleading, was it delight, was it complaint, was it fear? Fear?! Gosh. What was he trying to say? I will never know.
Maybe he wanted out. But did he want me to really get him away? But how? To where? How could that possibly help him now? To what end? And the end indeed it seemed was both impossible to evade and imminent. Once the doctors had sedated him, this time extremely heavily (and it turned out permanently) and fused the calming drip with extremely powerful painkillers, they confirmed that all that they could do, all that they would do now, was to try to make him as comfortable as possible. Let nature take its course and let the end, yes, that end, come naturally.
For three days and three nights we were at his bedside, each struggling to come to terms with what had happened, was happening, was going to happen, and our own helplessness within the great scheme of things.
He never regained any semblance of consciousness after that, he just lay these wasting away. Each breath desperately drawn, deafeningly loud, excruciatingly painful, so deep you could sense it clutching frantically with bleeding, scratching fingers to the very last vestiges of a long and substantial existence now finally being squeezed out of life force. A flickering candle struggling to keep burning on a charred-out wick even as the wax withers and evaporates; a diminishing flame, that must concede in the end, despite its valiant perseverance.
People came to visit during the day, the nights were the worst though. We tried to lift the gloom, we spoke to him, to each other, perhaps fooling ourselves that he could hear, or possibly hoping his soul was still receiving. We reminisced, we joked, we even laughed, we knocked on the door of ‘club insanity’ and sometimes were let into ‘madness hall’ by Sleep Depravation. We deceived ourselves, we consoled each other. And we waited. And waited.
I distinctly remember the last three breaths, they were very different from the previous unrelenting gargling gulps of air. The final breaths were more like an expelling of pressure, an arrival to an end, like an old steam train pulling into its final station, they were a letting-go. And then there was nothing more. Just a gaunt, emaciated empty shell that had once housed what we knew to be our very own Superman.
Despite knowing it, despite preparing for it, despite expecting it, the end still came as a shock, as I guess it does for everyone. Denial still reared its head. Anguish and grief still threatened to overwhelm.
I never did let the tears gush forth. There were moments. Especially at the funeral, when as per custom my brother and I descended into the grave to position and lay down to rest the body. I had no strength left to participate in the traditional filling of the grave with soil by the mourners, my wielding of the spade no doubt appeared pathetic to bystanders. But my strength had been sapped by the determination to hold it in, to maintain a dignified presence, a stiff upper. It was only befitting to his memory.
In fact I’m not sure that I have really properly grieved even now. I’m not sure I’m actually allowing myself to. I think I still hold myself to task, for not being there, for not doing more… for not even going into that test procedure with him when he asked me too. Even though logic dictates there was nothing I could have done, and faith assures that fate played out exactly as it was destined to do so. Yet I can’t but help feel that I failed him.
Like I said I’m not a dream reader. But I wonder if his kindly presence in my sleep and his gracious demeanour, was an indication of forgiveness from the beyond. Maybe the act of him sitting and resting suggested I should take solace from the fact that he is now at peace? Or perhaps I merely wish it to be so. Maybe I’m just seeking exoneration, and a peace and resolution for myself? Selfish as always then?
What I do know is how I want to remember him. And I don’t want to remember him as he was in his last years. I want to remember him as I vividly still do from my own younger days: dynamic and strong, someone who achieved so much and yet stayed true to himself. He raised a family, each of his offspring today is healthy, happy and settled; he was free of debt; he earned the respect of his peers and the people he worked for; he played with his grandchildren; and he made peace with his God. He can be proud of what he did and what he left behind.
In this I find some consolation. In this I find comfort that it’s not an end to be mourned, but a splendid and full life to be celebrated and admired. I miss him, and I’ll probably miss him even moreso once I fully and finally come to terms with him really, really not actually being there anymore. But I’m also grateful; so grateful to have been his son, to have known him and to have matured enough to have appreciated the fine man he was.
God bless you father, may you rest in peace.
[He loved taking pictures and having them taken, particularly in his younger years with his trusty old Yashica 635 Twin Lens Reflex camera, which I’ve now inherited. I found and scanned some of his pictures, along with some incredible documents detailing his study and work life from as far back as the 1940s. See them in my Facebook Album here]