My father died 6 years ago today. As luck would have it I was back home on one of my long trips back (6 weeks, my boss raised an eyebrow but as I hadn't taken a break in the previous two years there was nothing much he could do about it. My father passed away in the last week of my holiday and I will always be glad that I had timed it as I did then).
I was inwardly shocked when I saw him. He had a full growth of beard whereas he had alway been clean shaven before. He was also much smaller and shrunken than I had remembered, reduced in stature and vitality and he seemed strangely disengaged. Most of his time was spent channel surfing, at other times he would sit in his favourite chair by the door, watching people and traffic pass by. The only thing that really perked him up was his favourite, my niece Ann, who was the first child born into our family in over thirty years. She spent her first 6 years growing up in the same house as my parents before my brother and his wife moved out into their own place, and she still spends the weekdays at my parents (I can't stop thinking of the place as if they're both still there) because of school. He would make sure to see her off safely on the schoolbus, say a short prayer to himself for her safety, and shuffle off to his room and wait through the day for it to drop her off home in the evening. Because traffic could be unpredictable, whenever she was slightly late back he would begin to fuss and worry, eventually sending my mother out to the road to catch a glimpse of the bus turning around the corner (exactly how this helped matters was always a mystery to the rest of us). I think he caught an echo in Ann of my eldest sister C, his firstborn, who was always his favourite and maybe distantly, the memory of himself when she was of Ann's age and he was in his prime. I am reminded of a saying of Trotsky's, "Old age is the most unexpected of all things that can happen to a man".
I had come back on holiday with my wife and son, J, who was three at the time. My father had only seen J once before, on our previous trip when he was 10 months old. I had hopes that he (my father) would be all over him as the rarely-seen grandchild but no, he was just unenthusiastic and incurious, and after the initial burst of excitement after our arrival, he settled back to his old routine. This hurt me somewhat at the time, but now I realise that he was already drifting off, disengaging and it was just too much to expect for him to form new connections and re-engage. The week before he died I made perhaps the most awful discovery of my life. My father was an inveterate news-junkie, CNN and BBC World were a God-send to him and he would spend hours daily taking in the news cycle. I had noticed him watching the TV and scribbling furtively with a pencil stub in an old notebook. That night, (it was a Thursday and he passed away the following Monday), I leafed through the notebook with mounting sadness. It was filled with minutiae like "Donald Rumsfeld, US Defence Secretary", "Carly Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett-Packard", and other clearly topical news snippets. But I was horrified to also read "Herman, Lee's husband" (his brother in-law of over thirty years), "Kenny, Dave's friend" (my brother's best friend, well known to the family for over 20 years). He was clearly aware of the lapses in his memory and perhaps other signs of cognitive degradation that had escaped us, and was scribbling facts down in quiet desperation as an aide-memoire to hold together, perhaps for a little time at least, his personality intact like a brave, little boat on stormy seas while underneath the dissolution of the consciousness carried on remorselessly. In a way I am proud of his stubborn defiance to go gently into the good night but it also breaks my heart to think how frightened and alone he must have been since he was just too ashamed to reveal it to anyone.
That Monday my mother hammered at the bedroom door, and with a catch in her voice asked me to go downstairs and help her to wake Papa, that he was limp and wasn't responding. She already knew but was putting it off for as long as she could. As soon as I walked into his bedroom I could see it was over. He looked peaceful, there was no sign of struggle and he had the duvet pulled right up to his neck. He was cold, preternaturally so even given the situation as the air-conditioner was on at full-blast, and must have been so for hours. I checked his eyes, hoping against hope, but they were lifeless mirrors and I noticed a trickle of blood at the edges. I pulled off the duvet and he was lying recumbent like an effigy with his hands on his stomach. He looked even more pitifully small and shrunken then, and I held his hand in mine, hands that have stroked my hair, patted and spanked me, and now feeling cold and alien like frozen wood.
I didn't cry at the funeral and I never have actually. It must be a flaw in me but its not to say that I didn't love him or that I don't miss him terribly. He lived a better life than most, and when he went he had four grandchildren and was surrounded by his wife and children and had nothing to want for. We should all be so lucky. And it would have been selfish of us to wish for his life to be prolonged when he was slowly succumbing to dementia.
When I returned to Basel, everything seemed unreal. It was like nothing had changed and yet I had been marked, and everything was different. Throughout the spring I got back in the old routine (one can always count on scientific research to throw enough work in ones direction), but there was always a niggling feeling of something unresolved. At some point I started doing something I haven't done since my twenties and began scribbling down snippets of lines and couplets about my father, childhood, life, loss and memory. It quickly grew into a rambling and disorganised mass/mess. I put it aside eventually, maybe the impulse had worn itself out, but there was also the new life of my growing son to consider which pushed aside all thoughts of lapsing into solipsistic self-indulgence. I haven't read it in years, perhaps it will still feel too raw and it would, at any rate, certainly require a miglior fabbro to hew into any semblance of coherence and structure. But the concluding lines I can still recall and dedicate it today to my beloved father.
And when the end comes
The waves of the endless sea rise
Lapping your feet in sleep
Raise the sail, put out to sea
Overhead a high star shines