Dad

I’ve wanted to write this post for a while. It’s very long, and was very hard for me to write. One thing to remember: my dad was the most important person in my life.

 

We had a bit of a turbulent history, Dad and I. He and my mom were alcoholics throughout my early years. They drank a lot. And I mean a lot. If you’ve read my post about my mother you’ll know that they drank enough to permanently alter her brain so that even after 21 years of sobriety, she is barely half the woman she once was.

When I was five years old, Dad and Mom both went into Alcoholics Anonymous. I am a child of AA. I went to many, many meetings. I have memories of sleeping on the floor of many, using my teddy bear as a pillow. I could recite the serenity prayer before I knew what the words meant, and it still serves me well to this day. I recite it often.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

 We had a good few years. It was wonderful to get to know my parents sober, though the memories are hazy and mostly to do with the feeling of contentment I had during those years. I was so happy. Everything was perfect.

And then Gran died, my dad’s mom. It was 1994, I was eight and she was my favourite grandparent. Every visit she would bring Mom a box of biscuits and me a box of Smarties. I would sort them by colour on the table, and listen to her and Mom talk. There is a reason why Scottish is my favourite accent. Not even forty years of living in South Africa could take that accent away from her.

But she got sick, as old people do, and she died, as everyone one day will. Dad was never the same.

I first found the wine bottles in a patch of flowers in the garden, and I didn’t think much of it. Everything was still more or less the same, though I missed Gran so much. It was my first contact with death – the first of way too many: My uncle in 1995. Both my mom’s parents in 1996. My friend Kay, who committed suicide in 1998. And it never stopped. But I digress.

I was nine when the blow came that we were going to have to sell our house. My parents had built that house in the early 70’s and it was their pride and joy. But the cost of living in Bryanston and maintaining such a huge property was becoming too high. I was so angry. I loved my home, with its huge gardens and fruit trees. And I knew things were happening, and that my life was changing, slowly and inexorably in a direction I resisted with all my heart.

But, I was nine. And we were moving. That was that.

And that move coincided with my dad becoming a monster.

Dad’s drinking got worse. My parents fought every night. Sometimes the fights were physical. Sometimes I’d get involved and it would not end well.

I was dealing with starting at a new school. I was dorky and slightly overweight, with a learning problem (which I’d been in Occupational Therapy for for years, but which my teachers seemed to care little about). My teachers belittled me, and the bullying really started when I was ten, when I had to start wearing glasses.

My life was hell. My dad was always too drunk to care and Mom was too busy dealing with the death of her brother and both her parents in less than a year. My sister moved out when I was twelve, but she worked full time and was spared a lot of what went on at home.

I hated my dad. I feared him and I had no respect for him. It was Mom and me versus him at all times. My mom and I had such a strong bond then, but she was already starting to go funny mentally and at times would attack me verbally for reasons I could never fathom.

The bullying went on at school, and the fighting went on at home. I started cutting myself when I was eleven (that’s a whole other blog post).

When I finally finished primary school and went on to high school, life seemed to get a bit better. I was at an all-girl school and thus separated from the boys who tormented me. Dad still drank a lot but I threw myself into working at the school library. We only had to work there two afternoons a week. I was there every day. I spent as little time as I could at home, and spoke to my parents as little as I could. Our maid, Baba, who had looked after me my whole life, was the only person I liked to be around at home. If not for her, I think I probably would have gone through with my thoughts of suicide when I was twelve.

It was the year 2000, and I was in grade 9. August.

Mom came to fetch me and told me Dad had started vomiting blood that morning and had been admitted to hospital that day. He had been told that if he wasn’t operated on within twenty minutes of that point he was going to die. The problem?

His liver had stopped working. In an attempt to filter his blood, varicose veins had developed on his oesophagus. They had burst. The operation was to seal them off before he died from exsanguination. They replaced something like eight litres of blood during that operation. It had only been performed successfully about 20 times in the world at that point.

He then went into something called Delirium Tremens, caused by severe alcohol withdrawal. Also called Pink Elephant Syndrome, it induces hallucinations. My mom’s hair was blue. There was an entire underground city of horticulturalists under the hospital. He was convinced his younger daughter was only five years old, so the teenager before him couldn’t possible be his child.

I stopped going to visit him after that.

For the first time in my life I was faced with the thought of my dad dying and that was too horrible to bear. I thought a lot about the Dad I’d known in those few golden years of sobriety. One thing in particular: he’d taught me to read. Such faith he had in my ability, he would take me to work with him on the weekends and buy a newspaper from a street seller on the way. He’d then ask me, at seven years old, to read the headlines, slowly and patiently coaching me through difficult words like “government” and “Nelson Mandela”. He was a broadcaster so it was very important that he knew the news. I felt so proud.

And yes, things had got really bad, and yes I’d grown to hate and fear him, but I still loved him because he was my Dad.

And he was dying.

He was not going to survive.

I was going to lose my dad.

And the thought terrified me. I was so scared, so absolutely terrified. He was going to die not remembering I existed. And we were never going to sort things out between us.

But a miracle happened, as miracles do, and Dad started to get better. He was moved out of High Care and into a regular private room – and the doctors were still convinced that he wasn’t going to make it – his liver was just too far gone. But he got stronger, and healthier, and the yellow jaundice retreated from his skin. He went into a rehab facility – doctors there could not believe that he was standing and talking to them – the size of his liver, to them, meant he should be dead. But there he was.

December of 2000, just before my fifteenth birthday, Dad came home.

And Dad was sober.

It was a necessity, of course: “If you drink alcohol again, you will die,” was the ultimatum given to him by doctors. If he wanted to live, he didn’t have a choice. And of course he wanted to live.

Dad was sober. And Dad became my hero.

We got to know each other. He started showing an interest in my life, in my friends, in the work I was doing at school. We used to sit and talk and debate. He helped me with my homework, especially my Afrikaans. I would write my speeches in English and he would translate them for me.

Mom, who had been slowly deteriorating was finally diagnosed with Atrophy of the Cerebellum in 2002. But it was OK. I had my dad. We’d get through this.

We moved again, to our flat in Windsor East. This time, I was happy to move. We loved our new flat, with its garden. It needed work, but it would do. We worked hard over the years to make it nice, and we did.

I finished school and passed Matric with university entrance. I went to the University of Johannesburg to study journalism to follow in my Dad’s footsteps.

It didn’t work out, and I know I disappointed my dad terribly when I finally flunked out.

He never shouted at me.

I then got the job at my local creche in early 2008 as an afternoon assistant. They liked me, and within two weeks I was teaching the 2-year-olds. The rest is history. I had found a job I loved.

Dad was proud of me. He was proud of me, and that was all that mattered.

In 2009 I started noticing something was wrong.

Visits to the doctor whenever I was sick, invariably had the doctor turning to my dad and asking if he had stopped smoking, followed by a meaningful look. Dad became more sullen and withdrawn, culminating in a spectacular outburst where we got into an argument, I asked him what the hell was wrong with him, and he told me he was dying. I brushed that aside. He was being melodramatic, of course. I threatened to move out, and he told me if I did he’d kill himself.

Let’s just say we both said a lot of things we shouldn’t have.

I pushed it aside, of course, because it simply wasn’t true. I shoved it into a box in the back of my mind and sent it floating down De Nile.

In early 2010 I found the wine bottles again. The bottom dropped out of my stomach.

I went inside and wrote a note on a piece of paper, addressed to my dad and telling him of my discovery, and that I was worried about him, and that I loved him. I Press-Sticked the note on a half-full bottle and left it. Later that day, I received an SMS from Dad, thanking me for the note, and telling me he loved me too. He told me not to worry and that he wasn’t going to let himself become a monster again.

And he never did. Even on days when it was clear he had been drinking, he never let himself become the monster I had so hated and feared as a child. I knew he had his reasons for turning back to alcohol- I assumed it was the difficulties we were facing with Mom – and I tolerated it. It was another thing I pushed into the box in my head.

Dad became weaker. He was in bed a lot. He lost weight. He hardly ate anything. I was convinced it was depression, brought on by his retirement, and did all I could to try and cheer him up.

In July of 2010 he finally went into hospital for tests. My sister and I went to visit him every day. Each day he grew weaker, and I started panicking on the inside. At work and to my family, I was the same, cheerful person everyone knew. I never let on to the fear I was feeling.

I took a day off work on the 20 July, to look after Mom, who had suffered a fall the previous evening. Once I had assured myself that she was OK for a bit, I went to the hospital to visit Dad.

He told me he had something to tell me. The results were in.

He had Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disease – what used to be known as emphysema. The expected time left was five years at most.

He gave me a moment to let that sink in. And then he dropped the big bombshell:

He had liver cancer. And he was probably not going to live to see Christmas.

I don’t remember much of the rest of the visit. I hugged him, I told him I loved him, and on the whole took the news pretty well.

I got outside and phoned my friend Symi and her wife Ava, and burst into tears, and told them everything. I calmed down, and went to see my sister at work, where I told her the news. We stayed as calm as we could, so as not to alarm her customers. I went home, phoned my boss, told her the news, and burst into tears again. I broke the news to Mom… and it killed me inside to have to tell her that.

Bronwen (my sister) and I went to see Dad’s doctor that Friday, to see where things would go from there. The prognosis was bad. He was going to have pain. He was going to suffer from incontinence. He would need to be on permanent oxygen, and he wasn’t allowed to smoke near said oxygen. Bron and I were still adamant that we were going to take Dad home. All he wanted, after all, was to sit in our garden again, that he had worked so hard to make nice.

We got him home the following Thursday, the 28th. We set up a mattress downstairs in the lounge because he couldn’t make it up the stairs to his room. I went to buy milk, Bron went to get KFC. My brother in law, Brett, took Dad outside to sit in his garden. They smoked a joint that Brett had made specially. My dad, stop smoking? Are you kidding?

We set Dad up in his bed. Bron and Brett took my four-year-old nephew home. Mom went up to bed. And I went to sit at Dad’s bedside.

“Hey, Dad? Can I talk to you?”

“Of course love, what’s up?”

“I was thinking, nearly ten years ago exactly, you nearly died. And I’m really, really glad you didn’t. I’m so glad I got to really know you. I’m so glad I had ten years to love you. It’s like we were given a grace period or something, and I’m really grateful.”

“I know, I’m glad, too.”

He looked at me and smiled regretfully. “I’m just sorry we never did more. There were so many places I wanted to take you.”

“I know, Dad. you know what, one day, I’ll travel. I promise. And I’ll take a part of you with me. I know it sounds a bit overly sentimental…”

“No, I know what you mean. Thank you.”

“I love you, Dad.”

“I love you, too.”

I lay on the couch that night, to be near him if he needed me. I didn’t actually get to sleep, dozing in a state of semi-alertness.

Just before one in the morning, Dad called to me. “Kirsten, I can’t get up, and I need the loo.”

I hauled myself off the couch and pulled him to his feet. He had to detach his oxygen because it was on the nighttime pipe, which was too short. We shuffled slowly to the toilet and he moaned in despair. “Oh God, I’m shitting myself.”

I looked down and saw only blood. “Don’t worry, Dad, you’re almost there.”

Blood continued to pour down his legs and I got him onto the toilet. The floor, his legs and feet were slick with blood. I tried to clean some up, but he was having trouble breathing and asked for his oxygen. I rushed back to his bedside where the generator was and I plugged in the long pipe. I hooked Dad up to it, but nothing was getting through. I checked the machine, and it was working fine, but no oxygen was getting to Dad. He was panicking from lack of air, and it was all I could do to even think remotely clearly. I quickly grabbed the big, emergency tank of oxygen and opened the tap, hooking Dad up to that instead. He was breathing OK.

I grabbed my phone and dialled my sister. She answered within two rings. “What’s wrong”, she asked.

“I need you.” I stated.

I heard some shuffling on the other end of the line. My sister’s voice, “Brett’s on his way to you now.”

I hung up. I started cleaning up the blood at Dad’s feet so that when I tried to get him back to bed he wouldn’t slip.

Brett made the fifteen minute trip in five minutes, took one look at the situation and called an ambulance. A hazy thought came through from my First Aid class. “Tell them that the blood is dark. He has internal bleeding.”

The ambulance arrived within fifteen minutes. The paramedics couldn’t stabilise him in the toilet as it was too small a space. They took him out to the ambulance to work on him. Brett went home to fetch Bronwen, who left my nephew with the landlady. I went upstairs and told Mom what was going on. I stood outside at one-thirty in the morning, waiting for the paramedics to stabilise Dad for transport, and looked up at the moon. I sent up a silent prayer. “Please, please, my Lord and Lady, or whoever’s listening… if this is how it has to be, then take him now. Don’t let my Dad suffer this indignity. Please, please, if he has to suffer then please just let him die.”

I rode in the front of the ambulance to the hospital. Bron and Brett met us there. They took him into the emergency room, and we went to the waiting room. Forty-five minutes passed before we were allowed to see him. One at a time. Bron went first. I went after. He was lying on a bed, covered by a blanket. I gave him a kiss and told him I loved him. He smiled at me and murmured, a little incoherently, “You too.”

As I left him, a nurse stopped me and pulled me into a hug. She told me that everything was going to be OK, but that it wouldn’t be long now, and that he probably only had a few days left at most. I cried then.

The woman paramedic came to me and told me her granny had died four days previously of the same thing. She hugged me, and said she understood some of what I was feeling. It was three-thirty in the morning, and she had to go to her granny’s funeral at nine.

We went home. Pink’s “Sober” came on the radio with the lyric, “I don’t wanna be that call at four o’ clock in the morning, ’cause I’m the only one you know in the world who won’t be home,” playing  just as the clock in the car ticked over to four a.m.

It’s funny the details you remember, isn’t it?

Bron took me home and told me to sleep. I cleaned, instead, the area around the toilet. I couldn’t bring myself to open the door though.

Shortly after six, I phoned my boss and explained what had happened, saying that I hadn’t slept and asked for the day off. Of course, she gave it to me. I think I might have slept for a bit then.

Bron and Brett came and fetched Mom and me and we went to go visit Dad at about ten in the morning. We got Mom a wheelchair because she couldn’t walk that far. Dad was in the same section he had been in during his stay, just in a private room. He wasn’t in the ICU as he had signed a Do Not Resuscitate order.

He was drugged up to his eyeballs on morphine, but he was coherent enough to talk to us. I held his hand and kissed his forehead. Mom held his other hand and told him she loved him. He said he loved her too, the first time he’d said that in years.

When it was time to leave, Bron and I looked back at him, and he smiled at us.

That’s the last memory I have of my father.

We went home, and I slept. I woke just before one p.m. when my boss phoned me to ask how things were going. I told her I had heard nothing yet, but that it probably wouldn’t be too long. That Dad probably wouldn’t last the weekend.

Just as I put down the phone, I heard the gate and front door open, and my sister’s voice calling my name. I knew by her tone that everything was wrong. I opened my bedroom door as she came up the stairs, took one look at her face and said, “Oh god, it’s happened.”

She nodded and hugged me tight, “At twenty-to-one this afternoon.”

We went to wake Mom. She woke up crying, “Oh, oh, he’s gone, he’s gone.” We told her yes. Bron and Brett then left to go to the hospital to identify Dad’s body.  I phoned my boss, and cried then. And then I phone my colleague and dear friend and said, “My dad’s dead, dude.” My aunt came to spend time with us. We watched the Idols auditions and talked and cried. My colleagues came to visit when they’d finished work.

The following week passed in a haze. I yo-yo’d from absolutely fine, to sobbing wreck, and it was all I could do to hold myself together in front of my kids at work.

A sense of catharsis came at his memorial (not a funeral, Dad hated funerals). I wrote a eulogy of sorts and read it. We shared the funny stories and laughed more than we cried. We celebrated his life, instead of mourning his death. It was important.

Dear Dad, 

We’re standing here, just beginning our lives without you. It seems impossible. All our lives you’ve been there to offer guidance, love, a shoulder to cry on, or simply obscure and often very rude jokes. You’ve been our foundation, our rock, the person we go to to help us pick up the pieces.

Now you’re not there anymore, and we feel lost, a ship without a lighthouse.

We will miss your smile that took up your whole face, your laugh.

We will miss the joy you took in our successes and the pain you felt alongside us when we failed.

We will miss your funny accents and the way you always answered the question “How are you?” with “Tall and deluded”. 

We will miss your cooking.

We will miss the way you enjoyed looking up pictures of Barney on the internet for your grandson.

We will miss your jokes, your vast sense of humour, and the way you could out-gay any gay man.

We will miss your pragmatism and rationality, the way you taught us to always question everything we hear.

We will miss your love of language and your rants about how people speak – how to pronounce pronunciation and how it’s reSEARCH, not REsearch. 

We will miss our walking encyclopaedia. 

We will miss your unquestioning acceptance of who we are.

We will miss your unconditional love.

Nothing could ever replace you. Nothing would ever even try.

We miss YOU.

With all our hearts, and all our love,

Your Daughters

 My dad made me who I am.

I will always love him.

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