“You can’t stop the waves from coming, Nicky.”
You can’t stop death from coming either.
My father’s life has not been the same since, 16 months ago, a drunk driver rode into him and paralysed him. He was a quadriplegic who took months to learn to breathe and talk again. He spent six months in hospital and rehab before he came home and had two admissions before he died too. He had periods where he was getting better, where he was driving his wheelchair really well. My parents even attended two musical concerts. But the accident was just too much. Too many things going wrong for his body to cope with.
In his last hospital visit they discovered what they thought were bleeds on the brain. A mass near the site of the injury. And it really would have been too much for him to have further investigation. The humane thing was for him to come home and be with his loved ones and be comfortable.
I had been speaking to my mom about coming and it was unclear if we had weeks or days. But by Saturday and Sunday it looked more urgent. I feel my job responsibilities keenly, and I knew it was photo day coming up. So I was weighing everything up and I phoned my boss.
Julia is just an amazing angel. I raised all these objections and she kept telling me “Just go.” Over and over again. Because I wasn’t listening. Because she knew how important it was. Because she didn’t want me to live with regrets.
So after speaking to her I booked my tickets. Straight after that a message came through from one of my mom’s friends telling me to come. So it was like a confirmation.
Nicky and I flew to PE on Monday to see my dad. Nicky brought his doctor set. It was touching to see him take out all the toy pieces and check on Grandpa. My father was breathing heavily through his mouth, with his eyes closed. All his functions were slowly packing up. He had such a dry mouth from breathing through his mouth but it was hard for him to drink water. He struggled to suck and swallow so we landed up dripping water into his mouth or squirting very little with a syringe. Trying to make him feel comfortable.
He knew I was there though. Few smiles now but I know that my being there did give him some comfort.
On Tuesday I landed up taking Nicky to the beach (which he loved) and after that doing a whole lot of errands for my mom. Because she didn’t want to leave my dad. We fetched her computer. Dropped off paper at the library. And lastly went to a nursery to get a voucher for the physio who was into gardening.
This nursery was really nice so we stayed a while. They had a lovely second hand kids store and I got a costume for Nicky as I had left his behind in Joburg. They had some Koi fish too which he liked.
We went back home and I had an early night. I was pretty exhausted.
The next morning my mom had tears in her eyes. “I don’t think he’s going to make it much longer.”
We hugged and cried.
“Are you sure you want me to go to the beach?”
“Yes. Go. This could take hours.”
My mother is very in favour of Nicky going to the beach. And he loves it too. She also has this theory that sometimes people choose to die on their own in that moment you are not there.
But that morning, before I went, Liz phoned.
Liz, my sister. She said the most amazing things. Things she said again at his funeral. And she said she was content to listen to him breath. His breathing changed as he listened to her. And she said this reminded her of that time when he had the accident and we listened to her message over and over again. Because it gave us strength. And once again, she shared uplifting words. Stories from childhood. We all sat around that bed and just listened and cried. And the carer was there with us. It is just one of those special moments I will remember because she was appreciating him and his life.
Around 9:30 at the beach I had this feeling I had better get back. But getting Nicky’s costume off, playing in the sand.. well it all took time.
I was driving home when my mom phoned. “I’m driving home, Mommy!”
“Just keep driving then!”
She came out the house in tears and told me I had just missed him. She did have her friend Lesley there and also George Irvine, an amazing Methodist minister who had been visiting my dad for a while. They had a very good friendship and some good conversations.
So we sat around, made phone calls, and waited for the underakers.
I was very impressed with the carer, who instead of dashing off, made herself very useful. She let people in, did the dishes, cleaned up, and helped with the body when the undertakers came. I think all the nursing staff formed a bond with my dad and some of the carers came to the funeral. St George’s Hospital even sent flowers.
From then on it was a stream of visitors and I kept making more and more tea.
Why is tea so comforting at times like these? But it is.
Although my dad was losing his ability to speak in these last days he certainly made sure he communicated in some way to us and specifically to me, even after death.
After Liz’s phone call I felt very stuck on what to say. My mom had some choir music playing of my sister’s child singing this “Brave” song which stuck in my head:
Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave
But I had no words. All I could think of was to say was to thank him for that time in Taiwan when I was stuck without money and used his emergency credit card for groceries (and subsequent trips to Hong Kong to get visas but that’s another story…). And then I thanked him for always being so complimentary about the food we ate. No matter what my mom made, whether she burnt it or not, he always was happy with what he served her. I think it’s an issue for me because my husband is very honest in his feedback about my food. And I’m no chef. I saw my dad’s head jerk as I said this as if he had something to say about this but didn’t have the means.
So after his death I went to the bathroom and I felt his presence very strongly tell me that this food thing really didn’t matter. I’m sure losing his appetite and having food put directly into his stomach through a PEG put things into perspective but I felt my cheeks glowing red as if I was being told off about this and that I should really love and appreciate my husband rather than being offended about honest feedback about the food.
Later I was sitting in the bath with Nicky and I had the strangest sensation. I felt my breathing become more laboured and rhythmic and a difference in sensation or temperature around my shoulders. I felt as if my dad was trying to explain to me how awful and difficult it was to live in this body. I felt a deep sadness from him and tears falling down his cheeks telling me how he just couldn’t continue like this anymore. I told him that I loved him and we had some kind of virtual hug if that makes sense.
I think these experiences helped me since living so far away and only getting there when his body was packing up made his passing easier because he told me himself why he had to go.
The next day we started making all the arrangement for the funeral. This was a very difficult process. Suffice to say that when you have certain plans in your head about how things want to go but also want to honour the memory of your loved one it gets complicated. I am so glad I was there for my mom.
My mom, who has worked with many undertakers in the city in her work with Hospice, chose Kramer Funeral Home “because I like Andrew.” She was impressed because he used to meet her at convenient places to collect death certificates and was considerate of her plans for the day. He was such a gentleman in a difficult situation. The only thing I can fault him for are spelling/ grammar errors. At least he gave us the funeral pamphlet to check but he did make errors in the death notice.
One interesting thing that happened at the undertaker was as we were filling in a form (we knew that he wanted to be cremated, but that was pretty much the only wish about his death he had expressed) we were asked if there were was any foul play involved before this body was burnt. And of course my mom said yes, because of the accident that been slowly killing his body over a period of 16 months. My mom is a warrior woman who has been fighting for his life over this time with every method she could think of but even she has her limits. There was only so much that could be done after such a severe injury.
So an autopsy was arranged. At the time of writing the cause of death was pneumonia brought on by the injury. The death certificate has “unnatural causes” and the case number which will hopefully help in obtaining some justice in this situation. They found a jelly like substance both in his brain (not brain bleeds) and in the mass at his spine which has been sent off for further investigation.
We also met with Claire, the minister conducting his funeral, that afternoon, and Liz actually joined in the conversation via the phone. Claire is the most amazing lady who has been extremely helpful in this situation. When we went to church on Sunday I liked that she said a special prayer for Nicky during communion.
My mom had an evening visitor and I was very tired and went to lie down. I had one last encounter with my dad, but it was a playful one. He was making me laugh about how my mom talks too much! After this I didn’t feel him around anymore.
On Friday we went and spent time with my friend Aletta and it was nice to sit and chat while the kids played at Spur. Nicky built houses together with Aletta’s son Adam with cushions. He likes to do that.
On Saturday we visited my husband’s sister and her family and it was good to spend time with them too.
These people are angels who have helped me through this time of my dad’s injury, often babysitting while I went to the hospital.
Sunday we went to church and Nicky managed to sit through the whole thing (with his toy aeroplane) although he did tell me he was bored.
The major highlight of Sunday was my sister arriving. She was stuck in Seattle until her husband came back from New York and then only left on Friday. It was so good to see her and have the family together.
Liz brought Nicky a cute Seahawks football Tshirt and he looked super cute in it. She bought a nighty for my mom and some delicious peppermint cocoa for me.
Monday was the funeral. Aletta was there early and we showed Nicky the cry room. He was interested in the toys so we left him there in the end. Debbie also came later (my husband’s sister) and I think he was suitably amused although later he informed me that he missed the “church show”.
It was a beautiful service. My sister and I sat either side of my mom and I am glad that we were there for each other because there were emotional times. My sister had an idea to put a collection of photos together of his life on the screen before the service and it was a special background to watch.
John, a man who worked with my father for the longest time, gave an amazing eulogy just about how my dad was a man full of integrity and mentioned an incident when he sent back items to the supplier when they sent too many. How he would rather go into debt than fire people in hard times. He was very emotional and I know that they had a strong bond.
My sister spoke many of the things she had already said to my dad but they were special childhood memories. Here’s an extract:
I have a strong memory of sitting in the corner of the garage in Summerstrand watching my dad work on his wood working machines. I remember the smell of the wood as he worked. I remember the feeling of being very content to just be with him, which is probably one of the most valuable things that he offered to me- his consistent, predictable, trusting presence and the understanding that he was patient, kind, fair and made a point to look for the good in people.
I think that it’s easier for me to appreciate the value of just being in God’s presence, to enjoy Him and to worship Him and to feel loved because of my dad.
I did the word of thanks and made a point of thanking everyone who had helped during the time he had been injured and then listed all the categories of people rather than names. We thanked friends, neighbours, family, the church, my dad’s cell group, the Marriage Encounter spiral, Strand Hardware – staff, dealers, suppliers, the hardware community and customers, PE Woodturner’s Guild, woodworkers, cyclists, hikers, La Leche League, Hospice, Tai Chi and last but certainly not least the carers who made a difference in his life in his last days.
We had the lovely hymns which my mom chose (Immortal Invisible God only wise, and Now thank we all our God). Claire gave a lovely sermon using the verse that father lived by and maintained that this was all there really was to life:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”
Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
She actually preached her whole sermon on Sunday on this as well. I liked the way she explained how old technology used to be so big and is getting smaller and just like the Old Testament had numerous laws; all we really need is this one main law.
At the end of the service the pallbearers walked with the coffin out the door and we followed to the hall next door. By this time Nicky had been set free and was demanding food so I spent some time sorting him out and he was very happy to have a few cupcakes and some juice.
It was also nice to have Brett’s parents there and he could see his other grandparents too, who had driven all the way up from East London to attend, which was much appreciated.
The funeral really was a celebration of his life and all the wonderful people in it. The church was packed.
The organist was really sweet and refused to take money for her services and told us to use it to spend it on time together. So we went and got Fishaways for supper. I drove around with Liz and spent some much needed time with her before my early flight the next morning.
I think the experience was a valuable one for Nicky about death. I explained to him, that just like Milo, the body was left behind but his spirit had gone. Nicky did see the dead body too.
I am grateful that he had a pain free and comfortable death but I am sad that if it wasn’t for the accident we would have got to spend more time with him.
A remarkable man who I have learnt so much about looking for the good in people, not giving up, being consistent and enjoying life.
This week I was sitting back at work making rain makers for the kids in my class with tin foil and toilet rolls, just having joy in the creativity and the fun in the final product. And I thought of my dad, contentedly working away in the garage making so many woodworking furniture and objects.
I miss you, Dad.