The Many Faces of Death
This is a story of how my Dad kept dying.
I always thought the physical act of dying was the only one, but I also grew up so detached from the idea of death itself. It was something that happened in movies and books, something I’d have to deal with when I was much older.
But this past year, I’ve learnt there are so many different ways a person can die.
Earlier this year, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. He had been unwell for a while, but months of misdiagnosis and random good days had made us comfortable. Had deluded me into thinking the condition of his health was a minor thing. He would get better because what other alternative could there be?
I remember waking up the day after cancer had been diagnosed and feeling like the world had slipped away from me. I went for a walk and it was a surprisingly foggy day. I walked for hours and hours in the fog, trying to process what I just learnt.
And as I walked, I grew more pissed with the hand that had been dealt. I realised this was not something I could control, but something I’d have to survive or try my best to.
That was the moment when my old world died. Things that consumed my life previously now seemed trivial. For the months to follow, I learned how to grieve the living. I spent as much time with my dad as I could watching Indian movies, making omelettes and half-slept in fear I’d miss something.
When you know time may be finite, you try to appreciate every drop of time you get.
I watched something in my dad die before he did. That’s the thing about cancer — you get to watch it suck the life out of someone before they’re even gone. It tears away at your body in a way that leaves your soul reeling. That was the first time I realised death had struck.
Some memories won’t die, however. I know that I will remember with clarity for as long as I live one of the final conversations I had with him. The doctors asked me to come in and translate the reality of the situation with him. I had to tell him he had days left.
He asked me what they were saying so I explained, the tumour would cut off his airways and he wouldn’t be able to breathe. “What happens after Mitta?” He asked, fully aware and expectant. So I told him they would sedate him so he wouldn’t feel the pain.
“What happens after Mitta?” He continued to ask. His body would shut down. “What happens after Mitta?” He asked again. And I couldn’t answer for a beat until I finally told him he would die. And he looked at me, taking it in.
I would have traded my life to never have seen what my dad looked like acknowledging the fact that he had mere days left.
It’s one of the sore topics for me, that he was fully alert and aware of everything happening to him in those final days. His mind was switched on while his body was switching off.
I still have nightmares about it, but in my dream, I am the one in a hospital bed and someone else is telling me that I am dying. I try to get up but can’t feel my body, I turn over and my dad is on the hospital bed next to me. I wake up sobbing, furious because even in my dreams he is dying.
Then he left us.
I became half a dozen different people in the weeks following his death. The woman who had to be the bearer of bad news. The one who had to register his death and figure out what happens next. The woman who had to pick a casket. The one who stood at his funeral and delivered a speech. I barely recognise myself in any of these women.
I think about the person I used to be, I don’t remember what she was like, how to be that carefree and whole again.
No amount of time or preparation can truly prepare you for the loss of a loved one. No amount of time spent with them would be enough. A part of myself died then too.
The realization that I’ll never hear my dad laugh or sing again, stings every day. He will not be there for any of my milestones to come. I know people say it gets better with time, but I cannot fathom a day I can think about him without my heart breaking.
Looking back, my relationship with my dad was always so complicated. I grew up with an out-of-work Dad. There were years in which I was sympathetic but many more where I was resentful, embarrassed. I’ll always hate myself for time squandered.
When he was diagnosed and in the hospital, my sister gave me an envelope with old pictures and postcards that told me a story about a man I knew differently.
We were immigrants. My parents were from India and my Dad loved to explore. He settled in Brazil where I was born, and when I turned 5 my Dad left us to come to the UK. Like so many other immigrants he was sorting out jobs and housing, making preparations for us to join him.
In the postcards he sent, he tells me to behave and play well. They tell me that he can’t wait to see me again and to show me around. They told me the story of a man he used to be. And they make me sob because I never got to know that man, and I wish I could be small and play with him again.
I know I watched him physically die. I saw cancer kill his dignity. But I think the worst had happened when I was too young to fully comprehend it.
There are so many factors to blame and yet nothing to really blame it on at all.
When I was small and moved here, I remember my Dad teaching me English. I remember his desk was always pristine, he filed his paperwork neatly and was always such a businessman. It’s what he had been in every other country he had lived in, but this place wasn’t made for the hustle. The person who I knew as an adult was so far removed from who he used to be.
There are so many ways a person can die and the death of dreams; the pain of being looked down on in an unfamiliar land, the shame of being afraid and not knowing how to communicate it — well they’re enough to kill you off fully.
A part of my Dad died years ago and I spent so long mourning that person, I almost forgot to appreciate the person he became. Years later he’d have a fully grown-up daughter, freshly grieving his loss and going through his paperwork. Maybe in his immaculate filing system, she’d find a folder. A folder of broken dreams and hopelessness. A folder brim-full of job rejections, one after another. Enough to tear a prideful man apart.
Feelings are complex and I carry the guilt of those feelings with me now every day. It was hard for me to understand my father because I was always comparing him to others, to what he should be. Instead of realising he was just still trying to figure out how to be a father.
My Dad was so much more than whether he worked or not.
He was a traveller, he loved to sing, he was brave and funny. He had a heart of gold and always wanted to help people. Most of all my Dad loved me, he told me that every day, even on the days I didn’t want to hear it. He taught me how to ride a bike. On the way home from primary school there was a blossom tree. My favourite memory of my youth is every time we passed it he would tell me to run under it and shake the branches so that the blossoms showered on me.
My Dad was a good human.
He found himself in a life that was wrong for him and it hurts me to acknowledge that he did most of that for us.
I have so much guilt it could eat me alive. The only way I can function is through the knowledge that my Dad never held grudges. He didn’t die with anything but love in his heart for me. And I owe it to him to let that love guide me through this darkness and not the guilt. He had a great heart and thirst for life but never quite got there. That hurts me and always will but I think it’s on me now. To truly live a life and enjoy it, to laugh and love as openly as he did.
In these past couple of months I’ve learnt there are so many ways to die and not enough ways to say goodbye.