80 years

I woke up with that dry feeling in the mouth, the sudden expectation of something momentous happening today. Like waking up on your own wedding day. But not.

Dad is 80. He made it but only just. Last night, like most nights, I couldn’t sleep. At 2.30 I heard Mum softly calling Grace at the bottom of the stairs. She sleeps in my sister’s old room below mine; I am at the top of the house next to the attic. The grandfather clock’s ticking is loud in the dead of night.

Having been peaceful for days, his breathing yesterday had become congested, rattly like the sound of heavy snoring.

Last night was different. The breathing was suddenly shallow like his windpipe was closing up. The breathing sounded strangled. Although there’s limited facial expressions anymore he strained his head and neck and winced. We wondered if he would make it to 80.

Again, I felt like a character in a painting. The soft light from the bedside lamp lit up the paleness of his face and the pillows. Our own faces looked on watchfully in the half light while the rest of the room recedes into darkness. There is a bearded face carved out of wood in the beam over the door. It’s a relic taken from the church next door many years ago. I’ve always imagined it’s Jesus. He looks on implacably.

Time slows.

There’s something touching about it. All of us in our pyjamas and dressing gowns, faces concentrated, expectant. Grace – big, Namibian and so calm. Mum: greying, so English and proper calming him like she did to me when I was a child. Me with a pair of shorts and T shirt thrown on. I notice they’re both black.

Mum strokes that shock of white hair which was always so neat soothing him with her voice: ‘It’s ok, Peeka. It’s OK.’ As he coughs and gurgles.

The magic of opium. Amazing how something can be so lethal but also so beneficial in desperate times. Morphine sulfate in a bottle. But he’s losing the ability to swallow. Grace manages to put a teaspoon into the side of his mouth and then holds his nose forcing him to take it down.

Within minutes he is calmer. His breathing softens. He becomes still. We start to move ourselves like we’re coming out of a trance. I go back to my bedroom but don’t sleep. I walk between the bed and the window to slow myself down.

Today we had to celebrate his birthday. It’s such a milestone. I’m not sure if he was aware of any of it.

There was a great busyness about the house. Cards were piling up on the hall table. A bottle of champagne was left in a bag on the gate. A big box of flowers is delivered. Mum is icing his cake with bright green letters:

‘PEEKA 80’

There is also a flurry of medical activity. Nurses are coming and going. Always kitted out with face masks and plastic aprons, the widely known about PPE that the media have been saying there is shortages of.

One woman arrives with a huge blue storage box full of medication. Another comes an hour later with the syringe driver. We or really mum has witnessed so many phases of his illness. This is the latest. He is now ‘nil by mouth’ so all his drugs must be given to him intravenously.

We’re losing him – we can all feel it but we want to celebrate this day, this achievement, his life.

The sibs arrive at 4 with their families. The 10. The 10 who appear in those family photos that were shot in August and now adorn our houses. It became 10 two years ago on April 29th with the arrival of little Benjamin. His birthday is the day before Dad’s. It was 9 of us and now 10 and soon to be 9 again.

I need to be proactive and get us back into double figures! One day old love. Don’t you worry.

Everyone congregates outside the conservatory at the end of the house in that cautious, spatially aware manner that we all have now.

My sister’s family go in the conservatory, my brother’s in the sitting room. ‘Just avoid Mum’ I hear myself saying. For her safety.

We stand around the bed 6 feet apart. The families watching on from the sitting room, the dining room door open. Dad is fast asleep. We sing happy birthday and mum blows out the candles. The smoke stings our eyes.

‘Out, out brief candle’. But it hasn’t been brief. What a life. Lived with such vivacity, energy, wit, grace, interest, eccentricity, fun and love.

My sister in law hasn’t seen him for weeks. She wants to say good goodbye. ‘I don’t know what to say’. Just say thank you I say. I don’t know if that’s good advice or not. But for me that’s what I feel like we’re here for today, to thank him.

I walked in earlier. It was silent. I felt like I was praying. Maybe I was. I thanked him for making me, for making me like him. I am like him. I thanked him for all the fun, the love. I simply wouldn’t be the person who I am without everything he’s done for me. In a way he made me. I have an idea of the power of being a good parent. It’s only implicit this idea but I feel like I’m being let in on a big and important secret.

I catch my brother saying goodbye to him too. I think I hear ‘I love you’.

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