A lesson in impermanence
It is, I suppose, testament to the advances in medicine and the global middle class’s general quality of life that it is not unreasonable anymore to assume that your dad would live to 90 or older. After all — your father-in-law passed that milestone two years ago, and your dad ran and went to gym regularly and drank with enviable moderation. It is not unreasonable, yes, but quite imprudent, as it turns out.
In August, the day before his 40th wedding anniversary, my 62-year-old dad was told the tumours that had only been recently discovered in his lower body had spread to his lungs. The oncologist told him (and my brother, who was visiting at the time) that, if he was lucky, chemo might give him another 18 months. My howls were barely audible, I thought, as my brother broke the news, but my sister, also on the call, could hear them.
My brother — quite sensibly — cautioned against jumping on a plane immediately. Dad had decided to buy some time with chemo and so this would (we thought) be a months-long war; each of us would need to be there for him at various points further down the line.
In the days and weeks following, the pictures shared to our family group WhatsApp showed my dad, grinning, on mountain jogs and ParkRuns and hikes with my brother.
I went to Greece. I swam in the Ionian Sea’s indigo-coloured, silky warm waters. On the first day of Dad’s second round of chemo, I got a message from my sister saying his condition had deteriorated quite a bit in recent days. I called him. “How was chemo?” I asked.“We got through it,” he replied. He’d lost his voice so the words came out as a whisper. I sent him photos from the day’s swimming. “Beautiful! Stunning” he replied.
The next day, my sister messaged again: “The dr has called - try fly out asap tonight”.
It was after lunch. We were on an island I don’t remember the name of. I spoke to her in a blazing side-street, framed with bougainvillaea (or did I just imagine that), away from the tourists so that they wouldn’t see me crying. I didn’t mind if the stray cats did.
A taxi ride, a bus ride, another taxi, two flights. Waiting for the first one, in a cafeteria in Athens airport, I called her again; she had managed to get the last seat on an overnight flight from London and was at the hospital, at Dad’s bedside. I spoke to my dad. Self-consciously. Nothing profound — I described the planes I was seeing through the windows; it was firm ground, the world of Airbuses and Boeings — I’d inherited my fascination with aviation from him, after all; how many airshows had we been to together, how many museums?
On landing in Cape Town, I turned my phone off flight mode and got the news: Dad had passed away while I was in the air.
The death of a parent is as inevitable as your own — and yet (most of us, I think?) are so ill-equipped to deal with it. This lesson in impermanence, in fragility is an earthquake, a tsunami — with giant ripples, shattering aftershocks.
Grief, yes. And anger too. At not getting back in time. At how little time we’d had together in the last three years. At being robbed of resolving the difficult things between us; at the prospect of a lunch with him, me and my husband remaining forever impossible now. But leaving all that aside: anger that someone young (for isn’t 62 young?) and otherwise healthy could die.
As my friend Al, who lost his father when the latter was only a bit older than my dad, says: “Cancer is a fucker.”
It is. Incomprehensibly capricious; devastatingly cruel. And yet isn’t that so often of death, no matter the cause? Despite all the advances of medicine, despite there being more geriatrics on the planet than at any time previously, we still live in a world where too many lives are cut short — by war, addiction and disease.
My mom asked me to say a prayer at Dad’s funeral and I agreed, despite there being a celestial-sized question mark in the space where my faith in God once was. Struggling to get the words out, my composure flailing on a tight-rope, I prayed that we may have compassion for the many others out there who were also suffering from upheaval, from grief, from loss.
That’s the interesting thing: in facing this wrenching absence, there’s been the opportunity for connection. Death is as universal as it is intensely personal. This universality doesn’t (or shouldn’t) diminish your experience of it — rather it offers a glimmer of recognition, an outstretched hand.
(There were a couple mornings, too, when to be asleep seemed far preferable to getting up and going about my day. When to do anything seemed as pointless as it was unappealing. Take it from me: if you want to get up before 10am on a Saturday don’t mix copious amounts of grief, wine and whisky the night before.)
The lingering smell of him emanating from his shoes when I opened his cupboard was surreal. Like he was on a work trip to Joburg right now (a frequent occurrence pre-pandemic). How many times did I open that cupboard door just to catch that whiff? There’s nothing quite like drafting the statement to his company’s customers about his passing to shatter the illusion, to force you to accept things as they are.
The warm embrace of Dad’s old jumper and sheepskin slippers, worn while braaing (something he always did when I was young) brought me solace, made me feel closer to him. But each time I drove past the medical centre where he passed away, it was difficult not to tear up, to feel the distance, to feel the loss. I had managed to remain dry-eyed for at least a week when it was the thought of his recently purchased, almost full bottle of omega three pills (now being given to my Weimaraner who is recovering from being hit by a car) that made me start weeping.
His certainty in knowing where he was going brought him great comfort, I think. I can’t claim the same certainty. But I am aware of the ways in which he lingers — in our hearts, in our memories. In my love of jazz, George Gerswhin, photography, history, Yes, Minister.
“Remember the runs you used to do together,” Mom told me one evening. I remembered. In the weeks after his passing, I ran and walked where we ran and walked. In the forest, on the mountain, alongside the ocean.
And I swam — because swimming, for me, is a life raft, and long has been. I swam in the Dalebrook tidal pool and Sea Point Pool. At Bakoven and Blouberg in water cold enough to whisper “you are here, now” — water that didn’t extinguish the pain or abrogate his departure but made both easier to bear.
I’m still all at sea. The storms come and go. But my bruised heart is full and — buoyed by the love of friends and family — my head remains above water.
This is lovely, Alex. You are a wonderful writer, even through your pain. Sue Deans
This is just so, so very beautiful. It's a blessing for all of us who have lost someone to read this, feel the goosebumps and connect to you through your gift with words. Thank you Alex!!