I was quite young, twenty-nine, when my father died of liver cancer. We had a lot of unfinished business that I felt compelled to address. In hindsight I think it would have been better if I had just let my father be. If I’d spent time with him, doing things he enjoyed, during the last six months of his life.
The night before his death (in a hospice room with my brother and I) often plays over in my mind, even now, nearly ten years later. My father had been a strong man – the kind to go bodysurfing in a cyclone or calmly drive himself to emergency after tearing his arm to the bone – and fiercely resented the changes to his body. He stayed awake all night, refusing to lie down. We tried to make him comfortable, scratching his back, asking him what he needed, but his mind and body were preparing for his transition: he was muddled, hallucinating a little. It was terribly sad to see him like that, but strangely beautiful too. It allowed us space to care for him.
He finally lay down just after dawn. It wasn't easy, he was scared; we held him, we told him we loved him.
I think I play that night over in my head because I wonder if the outcome could have been different. If I'd done something differently, could we have had a few more minutes with him, a few more hours, years? There is an element of magical thinking at play. But his life was coming to an end no matter what I did; I have to make peace with that, somehow.
I have witnessed a few deaths. I grew up on a farm, I was present when a friend’s father died. I think perhaps every death is different and this is the best advice I can give – to be sensitive to the needs of your loved one, to join them on their journey, and cast your own needs aside.
Following his death, I was able to make choices that felt right for me: my brother and I bathed his body, I played a song at his funeral that my step-mother didn't approve of, and I helped to carry his coffin from the church. I had to do these things to honour my father in ways I couldn’t when he was alive. Like life, death is brief.