In between days…

Some people simply overstay their welcome. I spend the day making tea and coffee and small talk, to the point where a migraine hits me mid-afternoon. While it is wonderful to see school friends and people I have not seen in 30 years or more, it is exhausting.
The family starts arriving. I decide to cook a decent supper. We have had so many chicken pies donated. I make crispy roast potatoes, green beans with mushrooms and sticky sweet potatoes. Comfort food.
Tomorrow is the celebration in the Barry church. The thought of this event is enough to give me another migraine. I just want to be quiet at home now. I do realise the importance of these rituals, but somehow they also exhaust me to the core. We do this for my Mom – if my Dad had his way none of this would happen. Yet we know how important it is to celebrate his life.
Apparently my Dad gave instructions to the Pastor. All I want is for it to be over. There is a silent expectation of me to take charge. To be the son who sorts things out, make the speeches. I go through the motions. The reluctant adult.
Tonight I use my Father’s bathroom. His toothbrush and toothpaste sit in the little container where they have been for years and years. When will we throw that away? His razor on the windowsill – what will we do with it? I have a beard, I do not need an electric razor. His watch. The t-shirt and pajama shorts that he wore on the night he had the stroke are now washed and ironed, neatly packed with all the other laundry.
My Mom says that she constantly thinks that she must phone him to find out when he will be home. They phoned each other several times a day when my Dad was on his motorbike trips. I look at his presence in the house and know that it will forever be there. His earphones, his clothes in the cupboard, his spectacles, his diary, his cellphone, his wallet. His motorbike, his helmet, all his tools in the garage.
Tomorrow we will do the official goodbye. I have no idea what to expect.

Exhausted

I cannot think that I have ever been this exhausted. My entire body aches as if I had done a marathon beyond my limits of fitness. I woke up this morning in a strange, surreal space of disbelief and detachment. I knew I just had to get through this day…
My Dad did not want a funeral, yet he instructed his friend Pastor Phil that he should officiate, in jeans, tekkies and a t-shirt. We tried everything in our power to not make it a funeral but a celebration of his life.
Sitting around was the worst, waiting waiting waiting. Eventually I could not face making another pot of tea and buried myself in the kitchen to prepare salads for the after party with the family, after the official after party.
At 14h10 my sister and I went to the Barry church in Witsand to start preparing. The first friends were already there for the 15h00 celebration. We set up the slideshow, lit the candles, I practiced the hymn on the little keyboard for the last time. And then the people started filing in…I could not believe my eyes, nor have wished for a more loving, supportive, affirming show of respect for my Dad. Some friends I have not seen for more than 30 years, old school friends, family friends. People whom my Dad played golf with, people he worked with, community members. And some dear, dear friends of mine who have never met my Father!
I was standing just inside the door of the church hiding from the fierce afternoon sun. When I looked up a group of bikers pulled into the church yard, gently revving their machines. That would have made the old man smile! The church was packed to capacity – some people were standing at the back.
“It takes a village to raise a child”. This is my village, my people. These are the people who shaped the world in which I grew up, for better or for worse. At 54 I can look back (and now at them sitting in front of me), and smile at the power of connections. Of belonging. Of caring – enough to show up on a Wednesday afternoon at 15h00 to support us in our grief and to show their last respects to my Dad.
And yet, it all feels as if it is happening on a different plane, like watching a movie. A subtitled movie where neither the language spoken nor the subtitles make any sense. I am not part of this. I feel strangely aloof, distant from my own grief.
Several swigs of Rescue Remedy help me through my eulogy. I stand firm, and only when I talk about the way my Dad cared for my Mom does my voice tremble. I dreaded this moment, feared it! And yet, I know, having seen my Father die, being with him as his last breaths slowly, gently passed through his lips, gave me the strength to talk about him today in a calm and serene way.
Somehow I now feel a little bit grown up, no longer having a Father. I play the organ for the last hymn, “Our Father who art in heaven”. I don’t believe in heaven. Yet, I know that my Father’s Spirit is out there. Reconnecting on a different, altered state to everyone and everything around us. I know he has transitioned to another level of Being. And I hope he sends me a message about this…
We have the tea, then the drinks, then the braai. And through all this I feel this strange detachment, as if a part of me has been severed. Not in pain, nor in agony. I only feel a deep, sacred, peaceful silence.
As we walk out of the church, the undertaker stands outside holding my Father’s ashes and a bunch of flowers. The moment cannot be more surreal. The bikers are now all on their bikes revving up a big noise for the Old Man. My dear Mom gives them the perfect royal wave. (I know she hates the sound of a revving bike!) Stoic. As upright as the arthritis will allow her, making sure her hair is neat, she clasps my arm for balance and support. Her rock is gone.
And now I am lying in bed listening to the ocean. The dogs are curled up. The waves ebb and flow with the springtide. We are all One, Divinely connected. For now and forever.

Starry pants

And then, suddenly, Monday comes to crash the sacred silence. The housekeeper arrives early. Laundry. Vacuum. Dishes. The hospital bed is removed and my Father’s bed (which he made himself a few years back) is put back in its place. Order is restored to the household as if nothing had happened.
We need to go into town to sort out admin. Funeral parlour. Or is undertakers? Both names seem equally absurd. Bank. Doctor. Funeral policy. Death certificate. Cremation. Coffin. Oh God the choice of coffins!! My sister and I both step back at the sight of the coffins – they are to garish and ghastly to look at! No please, we cannot put my Dad in one of those! Not with his purple starry pants and t-shirt!!
“A jewish coffin is more expensive” the parlour lady tells us. We are not worried about the price! It is the cheap ornate wooden look with shiny gold handles and fancy screws that make us squeamish… “I can put rope handles on” she tries to placate us. “What about flowers?” she tries. “NO” we both say, just a bit too loud and expressive. “Ok” she says. “So do you need me to be there?” An even louder and more expressive NO escapes and we both start apologising profusely. “Our Dad did not want a circus, definitely no flowers and no you need not be there, we will cope.”
We sign papers and fill out forms for the cremation. No, no pacemaker. No, no prosthesis. Yes, he died of natural causes. I do not know where he was born. My sister guesses Tarkastad. Perhaps Wolmaranstad? Wtf does it matter where he was born?
We need to choose a design for the funeral brochure thingy. White lilies? NO! Lilac hues? NO! We will send you a picture. (A few years ago we took our parents on a boat cruise from Genoa to Cape Town. A very persistent photographer took loads of photographs. At a formal dinner one night my Dad had to wear a tie. Grumpy as hell about the whole palava the photographs turned out quite nice. My Mom bought one, saying it will be perfect for his funeral brochure. She kept it all these years.)
The entire rigmarole is beyond exhausting. Shopping. Doctor’s appointment for my Mom who is not feeling well. In Spar we bump into a number of people who we have not seen since our childhood days. Repeat story of death. Remember tonic! More locals. Repeat story of death. Did you get bananas? Another old school acquaintance. Green beans or courgettes? At the till we hear a man say to someone “do you know Ann Stroebel? Her husband also died this weekend!” My sister says to the till attendant “we are his children”. “Haai mevrou?” And she carries on scanning our groceries.
We go for lunch at a local restaurant where my parents are regulars. David is our waiter. Friendly. My Mom asks him if he knows my Dad. “Ja mevrou, ek ken oom Eric goed van Witsand se dae toe ek nog by Nella se winkel gewerk het!” Die oom is Saterdag dood. “Haai mevrou, my innige simpatie. Wat kan ek vir mevrou-hulle kry om te drink?”
The visit to the pastor at the Bible School reveals yet another side of my Dad that we knew little of. He visited Phil often, attended services at the Chairos Church. “Your Dad told me exactly what to do. And that I am not to wear a suit and tie. Jeans and t-shirt and make it short!” Dad was well loved and respected by Phil and his wife Tanya. I remember my Dad telling me that he was attending the annual church concert. They asked him if he would participate, to which he agreed. I was completely dumb struck – my Dad in a church concert? He did a solo performance of “I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion patch”. Apparently it was a great hit!
One weekend we came home. My Dad was even more quiet than usual. On Sunday morning he showed us a photograph of himself in a big swimming pool, being baptised. I was speechless. Afterwards Victor asked if I knew about this. I had no idea! “They could have at least taken the kreepy krauly out of the pool” Victor said. We could not stop giggling. My Dad. Dark horse.
The NG dominee comes to visit. We have to break the news that he will not do the service for my Dad. I explain to him that my Dad was banned from the NG kerk in about 1970 for being a Freemason. He was asked to choose between the Freemasons and the church. He chose the former, never setting foot in the latter for 12 years. When I was in matric the dominee at the time, Ben Marais, invited my Dad to come to church, aa I had to be confirmed. My Dad came to church, fell asleep within minutes. My Mom just about cracked his ribs to wake him up. He never came back. I was confirmed. Sela.
On Monday morning, many years ago, my Mom went to the pharmacy. Neville Lotz, the pharmacist, asked her how my Dad’s hand was feeling. My Mom had no idea that my Dad’s hand was feeling anything. “Why?” she asked. It then transpires that there was an argument during his fourball. Some old (white) members of the club wanted to change the constitution to prevent certain new (coloured) members from becoming committee members. My Dad objected. One of the fourball players called him a “k….boetie”. My Dad klapped him so hard with a backhand swipe that he broke a few bones in his hand. He was obviously too scared to tell my Mom. He was banned from the club for six months. He joined the club in Riversdale and never went back to the Heidelberg club again.
We go through old photographs at home. There are hundreds of pictures of him, dating back to 1939. A beautiful boy with blond curly hair. Judging by the pictures he must have been adored. And only child, my Grandmother called him “baby” until her death when he was well into his sixties.
At the funeral place I am painfully aware of the fact that my Father’s body is lying in the back in one of the fridges. I feel guilty that we did not put socks on his feet. Silly thoughts of how cold he must be, entertain themselves on my mind. I wonder about the cremation. Will it really be his ashes that they return to us? What are the chances that they simply take a scoop from a big pile? I am somehow very sceptical of the whole cremation business…obviously read too many Huisgenoot stories as a child.
We are now in that twilight zone between death and memorial service. I hate the words “memorial service”. Celebration of Life. Whatever, we are all in limbo. Waiting for family to arrive. Trying to focus on minutiae about who sleeps where, what will we give them to eat. My Mom is fixated on her own reality – the medical aid excess payment of her medication. And the dogs that won’t eat. Tonight she says “there is something I don’t understand”. “What is that?” we ask. “Why are people now telling me what a good man he was?” We don’t really have a plausible answer. “Let’s eat” is the best I can come up with.
I am sitting at my Dad’s place at the table. Everyone puts their hands out and automatically I repeat his grace. “Seën ons Vader voor die ete laat ons U nimmer vergete. Amen”.

Until death do us part

My Mother is living with mild cognitive impairment, with memory loss being the only real symptom. Well so we thought until my Dad had his stroke. Over the past few years she told us that she cannot cry. My sister and I joked about it, and told her that when the day comes and there is a good reason for her to cry she will. Somehow, she cannot cry. And it really concerns her. “What will people think of me that I don’t cry?” We assure her that between myself and sister we make up for all three of us!
Minutes after my Father’s passing my Mom says “what now?” Reality check? Nurse in action? I realise that she actually means what she says – what now? I gently say “nothing”. We are now just going to be with my Dad’s body in silence. I open the windows and we sit in silence. His face is serene, gentle. My Mom is worried that he might actually still be alive…. I put my head on his chest and listen for a heart beat. She feels his pulse. He has transitioned.
My Father is dead.
What now? We decide to put his favourite pair of trousers on – a purple pair with white stars, and a t-shirt. My Dad loved this pair of fleamarket pants that I chucked out years ago. Strangely Sally (his dog) suddenly did not want to be with him any longer. Right up to his last breath she was lying on his pillow. The minute he transitioned she no longer wanted to be with him. I cover his body with a soft blanket and tey to close his mouth. (My Mom hated it when he slept in front of the tv with his mouth open!) I said to her that I cannot get his mouth to stay closed. “Why don’t we tie something around his head?” she said. I had to smile. I took the little frog shaped doorstop and put it under his chin under the blanket. Is helped a little bit.
We call the GP who happened to be in Witsand, just like last Friday night when Dad had the stroke. (The GP lives in Heidelberg and usually only comes to Witsand on a Saturday.) His gentle presence confirms the transition.
My Father is dead.
We call the undertakers and decide that a strong gin and tonic is now called for. Within the hour the undertaker arrives. We say our last goodbyes. My Father’s body is wrapped in plastic and thick grey plastic cover is put over the white plastic. It seems so official and clinical.
My Father is dead.
I help them carry his body to the hearse. On the way I pick a rosemary branch and puts it on the plastic cover. It falls off as we push the stretcher into the hearse.
My Father is dead.
Saturday is a daze. Grey, rainy, windy. People come and go in an endless stream of teacups and coffee and more food and cakes. Firm hand grips and perfumy kisses. Old friends, people I have only heard of, some I have never met in my life. It feels like I am watching a foreign language film of which the sub-titles are also in a foreign language.
My Father is dead.
Platitudes. People I know my Father disliked intensely. Some he tolerated. The odd one that I know he liked. At one point I feel like running away, far away to a quiet place. I realise that there is a very deep quiet within me. It is done. A life lived to capacity, with extra vigour. My Dad knew how to get the most out of his 84 years, he made sure that every trip became a journey. Last year we sat outside and he said to me “I have never been as content in my entire life as I am now”.
My Father is dead. Long live my Father!

Transition

As we turned my Father during the night, every two hours like good nurses should, my sister and I both encouraged him to let go. His breathing was shallow, but at least not as strained as it was in the hospital. Ten, twelve, two, four, six o’ clock. Every time we had to change his incontinence wear as his body was excreting fluids. Dark, brown, smelly fluid which was pumped into his veins through the IV drip.
This morning his colour started changing to a strange yellow. Somehow I felt no desire to talk to anyone – people came and went. I got the garden service people to put his lazyboy chair into his room next to the very wonky hospital bed. Every time we moved my Dad the whole bed went on a trip of its own, sending us trying to follow the bed whilst also trying to turn my Dad.
When the umpteenth person came in and said “ek hoop Oom Eric word gou beter” I decided to set the record straight. Oom Eric is not going to get better. He is dying. Say goodbye. Nee jirre. I am the eternal optimist but let’s not expect a Lazarus miracle here, for goodness sake. We listened to all his favourite jazz, and then to some very peaceful meditation sounds. Sally (the dog) was by his side, I fell asleep in the reclining chair. I somehow knew (hoped) that today would be his transition.
Since we got home I kept two candles burning, and a little burner with orange and lavender. Between the moving bed and my Mom trying to squeeze past my sister we almost had an immolation scene or two, the distinct smell of burning hair filling the room when my sister bent over to kiss my Dad at one point and got too close to the candles.
My family is known for being irreverent. I woke up this morning with one of my maternal grandmother’s jokes in my head. An old man was lying on his deathbed surrounded by his children. At one point he woke up and sat straight up in his bed, saying “I smell milktart!” The oldest son went to his Mom In the kitchen telling her that his Father asked after the smell of milktart. “Tell him to keep still” she said, “the milktart is for his funeral!”. I remind my Mom and sister of the joke, we can’t stop giggling.
More visitors come and go. We decide to only let those really close to my Dad to visit him. The day starts drawing to a close with school friends of my parents visiting. While they chat away, I keep vigil with my Dad. I decide to change the music to classical, when I realise that his breathing is starting to change. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Somehow I realise that the end is in sight. I call my Mom, my sister, Maritha (my Mom’s companion) and Sally (the dog) to come and join me.
It is clear that my Father is ready to transition. His breathing is shallow, a rattling in his throat. As we gather around him his breathing slowly, gently, quietly softens. Sally licks his ears and nose as his breathing becomes more and more gentle, the pause between each breath becoming longer and longer. And the. His breathing stops. Silence. We wait for another breath, but there is none. The transition is complete. I open the windows wide to let the room fill with fresh sea air. It is done. 19h21, Friday 21 February 2020.

Day 7

Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Billy Butterfield, Ray Connif. I tuck the ipad under his pillow, as much for his pleasure as for masking the sound of his difficult breathing. I grew up with the Big Band Jazz of these artists. Sunday evenings at home, lights dimmed after toasted sandwiches and tea for supper. He knew each song, every artist. In 1972 they drove to Cape Town to see Billy Butterfield at the then Nico Malan. I remember him telling us that the performers insisted that all races be allowed in the then Apartheid era theatre. A concession was made, my Mom sat next to an African lady. They spoke of this for many years…
My sister and I stepped into the nursing role. Somehow it is the most natural thing to do, not because we such amazing people, trust me. But this is the way we were brought up by my parents. Nike got their tagline from my parents – “just do it”. We step in, we step up when things need to get done. Most of the time we don’t think or even discuss, we just do it. Sometime stupidly, often reactively, most not considering the consequences.
Making the decision to discharge my Father from hospital was an instinctive act without much deliberation. This is how they did things – act, or be acted upon. I remember family and friends in trouble, a phonecall and minutes later the car is pulled from the garage. There was never a discussion of should we or shouldn’t we, shall we wait until the morning, maybe someone else can go. I recall countless times that I woke up for school in the morning, parents gone. Friends telling us that they went to attend to a crisis.
My Mom was the local ambulance driver for many years. With bad car accidents (too many to recall) my Dad would accompany her. Once on our way to Knysna we were the first to see an accident where a couple hit a horse that was in the road. They stopped and spent hours helping. Just did it.
I have never seen my Father naked in my 54 years, not even without a shirt. Instinctively my sister and I took on the role of his caregivers, washing him, turning him, changing his incontinence wear. It is hard to believe that after seven days of no food or fluids his bladder is still secreting urine. He is a solid 90 kgs, rock solid, dead weight. All my years of watching nurses paid off – after the first few fumbles, Dad flopping like a ragdoll, we manage the draw sheet manoeuvre.
A new respect for nurses and caregivers, and trust me, I already have the highest regard for them. The art of caring. Again, this is easy, I am caring for my father. Imagine doing this back breaking, smelly job for a total stranger, getting paid pittance for it? God knows, caregiving is a calling. It is not a job. And it certainly is not an “unskilled” job!! (I bump into one of the neighbours this morning who tells me that he can never do what we are doing for my Dad. Yes, I think. You can’t. Very few people have the skill, the nerve, the personality, the patience, the tolerance to be a caregiver. It is the time we change our minds about the profession of Care. I can never be a Caregiver.)
The question of “letting my Dad die” comes up with almost every visitor. “Are you not giving him anything, nothing at all?” No, we are not. My Father is dying, feeding him or giving him water will keep his organs going. The body knows how to shut down, forcing food or fluids will do more harm than good. Of course I fret about it at moments, deep existential doubt crawls under my skin and gives me gooseflesh. Am I doing the right thing?
I look at my Dad’s face. There is no sign of pain or discomfort. He no longer opens his eyes. Curiously I lift his eyelid – his eye is dull, as if the Life has already gone out of it. I wish I knew more, for certain, about the Soul’s transition. It seems that he is now in a negotiating phase, for lack of a better description. Contemplating the transition, escaping the cocoon of this body. I suppose after 84 years of being in this body it takes some time to leave it behind.
This body served him well, and he took good care of it! He never over indulged, keeping moderation in mind with eating and drinking, staying fit, biking, golfing, fishing. Every year he joked about doing the Comrades. It was always just a joke. Everything in moderation.
Somehow I feel that today might be the day of his transition. “And on the seventh day…” I listen as his breath gets more and more faint. He is so peaceful. “Just” a breath…

Day 6 – home

I woke up early from the little birds pecking the side mirror of my car outside my window. Another grey and misty morning in Mosselbay. Somehow I never learned to like the town. It was always the last bit of sea we saw before we went over the pass to boarding school in Oudtshoorn on a Sunday. The rondawel at De Bakke is furnished like so many holiday places across South Africa, with cane furniture and thin towels.
We drink our tea on the stoep in cheap glass mugs before I head up to the hospital. Cleaning time – scrubbing machines cleaning floors, moppers and dusters and sweepers. Staff scurry. Again too busy to acknowledge the presence of anyone.
By now the faces are familiar. And the obviously got the message to greet the grumpy guy with the beard. They are wonderful individuals, caught in a terrible system. The minute I go out of my way to make contact, they engage and become human. It is clear that they are not required to do that normally.
I hear my Father’s gasping breathing as I approach room 403. His poor new roommate, a young man waiting for a CT scan, must be desperate. I immediately ask the nurse to please turn my Dad on his side. It is much easier for him to breath. Only when I go back into his room do I notice an IV saline drip going into his arm. Very calmly,fuming inside, I stroll to the nurses station. Even more calmly I ask who put a drip in my Father’s arm. “The doctor” she says. I ask to see his cardex. There is no name next to the person who administered the drip, nor an instruction from the doctor.
Purely by the look on my face the sister says “I will take it out immediately”. Obviously by now they are convinced that I am a murderer, and that I might just murder one of them as well! Any person who can so blatantly kill his Father must be capable of killing them as well. THAT is how I feel when she removes the drip…
Yesterday I sent my posts of the last two days to the Nursing Manager of the hospital. She replied, asking if she can see me about my “strongly worded” perceptions. Die jirre weet. Just as I leave the room to restore my breathing and calm myself down, Head Nurse appears, inviting me to join her in her office. We march down the busy passages. It is clear that she is as upset as I am.
Head Nurse informs me that she has “never really come across an advanced directive”. Life Health Care. That is the name of the hospital group. LIFE HEALTH CARE. The Head Nurse has never come across an advanced directive OR a living will. I promise to give her a copy of my Father’s. It is clear that I am from Pluto and she is from Mercury. “What would you like us to do now?” I assure her that the only thing to do is that they must discharge my Father. As soon as possible. We leave each other’s company with a firm handshake.
On my way back to the ward I happen to bump into the (cocky) doctor who took over from the physician who saw my Dad since Saturday. Very, VERY calmly I ask him why he prescribed a drip for my Father. He assures me he did no such thing, that he saw my Father for the first time this morning. This is not the first time that I realise how quickly and easily the staff will tell a lie to protect themselves. (This is the doctor of the man who was sharing a room with my Father, whom the Sister promised that they gave his patient water and food when we know it did not happen!)
I am beyond exhausted having to fight this system. I ask the Sister in charge to phone an ambulance to take my Father home. NOW! And so the next drama follows. The medical aid does not pay for an ambulance on discharge. My argument that I am about to save them thousands and thousands of rands by taking my Father home is met with “these are the medial aid rules”. I give up. I will pay. JUST BRING AN AMBULANCE! I am now begging.
At 11h45 the ambulance arrives. The road feels endless. A soft rain falls gently, the fields are green. It is not our season for rain, usually at this time of year the fields are scorched. We arrive about half an hour before the ambulance. My Dad is obviously distressed by the journey. It is a battle to get him into the house via the back stoep. I carry him on a stretcher with the ambulance man. I know that soon I will carry his body out of the house again, this time dead.
Sally, the love of my Father’s life barks excitedly, gets into bed with him and starts licking his hands . For now he is home. Hopefully we can start to focus on his transition.

Day 5

His hands are turning blue. I want to cut his fingernails, but he is very peaceful this morning and I know how he hates being fiddled with. I put in earphones and we listen to Glenn Miller and his orchestra. His favourite music. Sunday evenings at home he would play this. I had no appreciation for it as a child, yet it is imprinted in my childhood memories. I learned to love it as much as he does over the years. He always got into trouble for listening to it too loud to my mother’s liking. Whenever “In the mood” played at a party, the two of them would “bob” like teenagers. That is one of my best and most beautiful memories of my parents – dancing together, laughing, both moving with amazing musicality and rhythm. Even in later years when my Mom’s arthritis inhibited her movement, they loved to still try and dance.
My Dad’s love of music, especially Big Band Jazz, became our love for music. I was forced to take piano lessons from the age of 7. Thanks to horrible music teachers I hated every lesson. I learned to play a jazzy tune called “Yellow jonquils”, about the only thing I could play decently. He loved that song. Whenever we were near a piano he would ask me to play “his song”. Music is the one thing we have in common. There are not many others. I was not an easy son, he was not an easy father. Only now that we are both older I know it is because we are so similar. “Stroom-op” is perhaps the best (kindest) description for our personalities. Aka “bedonnerd”.We actually communicate best with animals.
I hope that all the animals he loved so much over the years are waiting to guide his Soul. Buks, the wirehair terrier that he bought for R50.00 from a homeless man. They were inseparable. Buks had a box on the back of the red Vespa. On the golf course, in town, at work, Buks came back covered in grease and smelling like a garage dog. Like my Dad, Buks would not suffer fools gladly. We all have the scars to show for Buks’s intolerance and short temper. Daisy the black Maltese. Gentle Soul. Jessye, my Jack Russel who became his dog. Tippie the Wachtmeister cat. And then the latest adopted Sushi, the ginger cat. Sturdy, sullen, bedonnerd, full of fight. Just like Dad. He loved teasing Sushi, and again has many scars of claws and teeth. Sushi died a few months ago, being mourned to this day. And then his latest Sally. Little Maltese mongrel that adores him as much as he adores her. When in 2010 he had a back operation, we decided to get him another pet. He protested, saying he doesn’t want another pet, as it is always his job to have them put down when the time comes.
And now his time has come. I so remember the silence in our house when a pet had to be put down. The bedding disappearing quietly. The long evenings with no teasing the dog or the cat, taking them for walks or fussing over feeding rituals. We are together now in this silence. There is little to say. We all know, like we knew exactly every time a pet was ready to go. We released it. With love and grace. We mourned. The finality hung like a dark fog in the house. We laughed at the wonderful times we shared. We cried over the silence and longing. I so remember the day our 17 year old Oortjies was put to sleep, our first cat. A pale ginger, he was there from before the time I was born. I was 15 when he had to be put down. My world was shattered. At that time I loved him more than I loved anyone else in my family! He knew my secrets, he slept with me every night, he comforted me, was my best friend for 15 years. If I had to choose between him and my sister…. Ok, ok, I grew up and learned to love my sister a lot.
I was under the impression that we have moved beyond the controversy of advanced directives, that we live in a world where Life is respected enough that we can have open discussions about death. I was wrong. And I HATE being wrong. (Ok, I know you are all applauding my insight. Piss off. I HATE being wrong, when like my Mother, I KNOW that I am right. Another thing my Father and I have in common…) My Father has extensive brain damage. He has no register of pain. The brain damage prevents him from responding to any stimuli, his breathing is affected, he cannot swallow and is not able to move his tongue. He cannot open his eyes. At this point he does not feel hunger or thirst. I keep his lips wet with ice. He is dying, letting go slowly. It is not easy to let go of 84 years of living, I am sure.
His heart and lungs are strong. If we now put a tube down his nose or directly into his stomach to put food in his stomach, we will keep his organs going. That’s it though – his heart will beat and his lungs will breath. He will be in a vegetative state for perhaps weeks, months, even years. We will care for him with love and tenderness. The question is – what would HE want? In 2016 we sat down as a family and worked through an extensive advanced directive. In his usual manner, his answers were categorical: “NO, NO, NO!” I double checked, we laughed, he sat with his arms folded on the table, head down as he always did, affirming his life choices with every question I asked. He signed the document in his beautiful, firm handwriting and signature (I also inherited his handwriting).
At the time we went through the motions. Filling out forms, singing them, putting them away. We had many discussions as a family. As a Freemason, the custom would be that his coffin would have to be carried from the church to the graveyard on the shoulders of the pall bearers. We often joked about this. Apart from the fact that the graveyard is uphill about five kilometers from the church, at 1.85m tall I would carry most of the weight on my shoulders with the others being shorter than me. I joked about sending him to the old age home if he did not behave…
Rob, his biker pal just visited. More stories of the stubborn, upstream individual that my father is. He hates stop/go systems where there are roadworks, and would often zip through on his bike. Whenever he gets himself into trouble, which happens quite often, he would take off his helmet and say “how old do you think I am?” His age was used well, so proud of his 84. Shaved head, stovepipe jeans, denim waistcoat full of rally badges and leather jacket and zooty helmet he could be 24 on the bike. When he took off the helmet, people often shake their heads in disbelief. And then at other times he would act every day of his 84 years. Grumpy, full of aches and pains. The minute you mention that yesterday when he was on the bike, he would say “man, as ek op daai fiets klim makeer ek niks!”
And here we are now today, day five. I am grappling with the task I took of being my father’s medical proxy. I have never been one to back down on my convictions. I did not think that I would get so much resistance. It makes me question everything that I know, that I believe in, that I stand for. Not question as in that I want to change my mind about any of it, but a deep questioning of looking inside, finding answers to questions that I know are beyond my reasoning.

Weerloosheid

Leestekens:
FOK die weerloosheid! Fok, die weerloosheid. Fok dié weerloosheid. Fok die. Weerloosheid.
Die suurstofbotteltjie gorrel soos die pompie van ‘n akwarium in iemand se sitkamer. Pa ruk die ding can sy neus af. Hy haat goeters aan sy lyf. Sy asem is vlak en hortend, sy mond oop soos een van die vissies in die akwarium. Die personeel loop in en uit en heen en weer asof hulle in die Kaapse akwarium visse en seediere kyk – groet nie, knik nie, staar net na ons wat vasgevang is agter glas met suurstof wat borrel. Ons swem om en om en om in emosies wat eb en vloei. Daar is nie seewier om in weg te kruip nie. Hier moet jy swem. Hang jy net in die water dink iemand dalk jy is dood en bespring jou met ‘n masjien.
Op dag vier takel ek die hoofsuster. Vir vyf minute (dalk is dit tien, dalk drie) staan ek en kyk hoe hulle met mekaar kwetter oor ‘n dokter wat onredelik is. “Ek het hom gesê..” en “toe het hy gesê..”. Ek staan. Wag my beurt af. Dalk is ek een van daai deurskynende visse wat mens moeilik raaksien. Dalk het hulle nie perifirale visie nie. Ek staan. Hulle kwetter. Toe sy klaar is stap sy kantoor toe, verby meneer deurskynend. Ek haal diep asem. Ek Deepak Chopra diep asemteue en “aum” dat my borsbeen vibreer.
Die spraakterapeut gaan vra die hoofsuster of sy my sal sien. Ek sien hoe hulle praat, hoe die terapeut moet oortuig en oorwin. Hoofsuster kom uit en sê ek moet sit. Die kantoor is nie ingerig vir mense sien en gesels nie. ‘n Plêstiekstoel, swart en ongemaklik om seker te maak niemand wil lank sit nie word aangebied.
“Suster, my Pa het ‘n Advanced Directive”. As ek haar gesê het ek het nou net die Coronavirus in die sentrale suurstofsisteem ingepomp sou haar afgryse minder sigbaar wees. Die koorsblaar op haar onderlip bewe effens. Ek kry die preek, goed ge-rehearse, van die eed van verpleging. Ek kan nie help om te vra of die eed van verpleging nie ook insluit:
As besoekers in die saal instap, moet mens hulle groet. Jy praat nie kliphard van ‘n pasiënt in die ontvangsarea waar almal dit kan hoor nie. Jy hou pasiënte se familie op hoogte van wat aangaan met die pasiënt. As iemand die hele dag by ‘n pasiënt sit en die koffietrollie kom verby, offer hom iets om te drink.
Die lys hou aan. Niemand kyk op nie, niemand bied enige inligting aan nie, almal vergaap hulle net aan die visse in die akwarium…
So lê my Pa nou vier dae na sy beroerte. Die dokter sê ons gaan niks doen om sy lewe te verleng nie. Geen kos of water nie, in elk geval nie voordat daar nie ‘n arbeidsterapeut, fisioterapeut, spraakterapeut by hom was nie. Gisteraand vertel die Suster dat my Pa ge-eet het. Sommer self met ‘n lepel. Klaarblyklik gebeur wonderwerke as ons nie daar is nie.
Die oom langs my Pa het ook beroerte gehad. Twee dae lank word sy kos neergesit op die bedtafeltjie. En so kom die volgende een dit, onaangeraak. Koffie word geskink en weggevat. Die dokter (‘n ander een) kom vervaard in met een van die Susters. “My pasiënt is kurk droog! Kurk, kurk, kurkdrook!” Suster begin verduidelik van hoeveel hy eet en vloeistof hulle hom gegee het. Dokter kyk in die lêer. “125ml die hele dag, geen wonder nie!” Ek sit agter die gordyn en wonder of ek vir die dokter moet sê “SY LIEG DOKTER!”.
Middagete kom sit hulle weer die bord kos neer. Teetyd skink hulle ‘n koppie koffie en sit dit langs die kos neer. Half vier begin die Oom roep en roep. Ek loer om die gordyn. Hy beduie, ek verstaan niks maar sê ek sal iemand roep. Ek vra (ondervra) die Stafcerpleegster. “Nee meneer, dokter het hom ‘n drip ingesit”. Ek sê “nee staf, daai oom het nie ‘n drip van ‘n dag oud in nie”. Sy gaan kyk. Sy sien. Ek sê “wat van jy voer hom sy kos?”. Sleepvoet staan sy nader. Die oom word gevoer. Sy lippe klapmvan lekker. Eers die poeding. Dan die mash. Dan weer poeding. Dan koffie. Hy kla dat die kos koud is skielik in ‘n vol sin…
So weet ons nog nie veel meer op dag vier nie. Dokter sê doen niks. Suster sê haar eed sê voer hom en gee hom water. Terapeute sê hy kan nie sluk nie. Die res vee en stof af en neem bloeddruk en skryf. En skryf. En skryf. En skryf nog meer.
Die spraakterapeut kom weer. Sy vra uit oor my Pa se vorige beroerte en hartversaking. Herinner my dat hy 84 is… Ek besef weer (al weet ek dit voor my siel uit jare se ervaring) dat my Pa “die 84 jarige beroerte in Saal 4” is. ‘n Ou man. Afgeskryf. Verby die “sell by date”. Ek neem haar na die foto wat ons bo sy bed gesit het, die een met Pa by sy bike. Donderdag het nog op Barrydale gaan eet met sy bike. My Pa is fikser as ek op 54. Sy probeer met ys hom kry om te sluk. Hy kan nie. Hy kan nie sy tong beweeg nie. Hy haal baie swaar asem. “Voer hom!” sê die Suster. Dis ons eed.
Ek voel hoe die spraakterapeut voor my oë verander. Skielik sien sy my Pa vir die sterk man wat hy is. Of was tot Vrydag nag. Sy sien my. Sien sien vir Buks en Tippie en Sushi op die fotos – my Pa se diere wat hopelik wagstaan aan die ander kant vir hulle Oubaas om te kom. En skielik is daar deernis. Sagtheid. Skielik voel ek minder weerloos.
FOK. DIE. WEER. LOOS. HEID.

The hospital

Some of my best friends are doctors. They are all incredible individuals, wonderful healers and gentle souls. I realised today that I am not fighting individuals, but a broken system. It is the same fight I have been fighting in aged care for the past 24 years, where the most wonderful people are paralysed by a broken system.
I am told that the hospital is too small, there is not enough staff, it is difficult to find trained employees. Of course that is like waving a red flag to a bull. (Yes a cranky old bull with good eyesight that hates red flags!) I am NOT interested in the fact that you take on more patients than what your capacity allows, or that you treat your staff like shit so they don’t want to work for you, or that they leave your business for better pay. “As management does unto staff, so the staff will do unto the clients/residents/patients”.
I have bandied on about this to the point where I actually irritate myself! And here I go again. What does “person directed” mean? It starts with knowing WHO I AM! The basics – I am defined by my story, not my illness or disease. I have a family. Or not. I am a mother/father of small children. Take into consideration that there are people around the patient/resident to consider, console, inform, consult.
The medical aid and hospital bills arrive quicker than the offer of a cup of tea or a glass of water (in fact the latter does not arrive at all.) Is it because the staff are so overworked/underpaid/badly treated that they seem to not care/notice/acknowledge the presence of their clients? I am yet to find a kind word, a small gesture of care from ONE person in this hospital.
This will be my last post on the matter. I will now focus on the beautiful process that I am witnessing of my father’s transition. The privilege of being with him, of noticing his beautiful hands, the softness of his face. A mechanic, my father’s hands were always battered and bruised. He came home at night and scrubbed his hands and fingernails like those of a surgeon about to operate. His skin was always covered in cuts and bruises, spots that showed his manual labour. My Mom would fight with him about another cut or bruise, which he almost never knew what caused them.
Now his skin is soft. The last bruises of the fall when he had the stroke are still there. A big blue bruise on the back of his head. The paralysed arm lie gently in his lap, the other hand reaching for his head every now and then, scratching his head as he always did. Is it muscular intelligence or is there really an itch? His breathing is irregular and shallow. And then he would fall into a deep, soft, gentle sleep.
The oxygen tube in his nose irritates him. I ask him to not pull it out when he reaches for it. His hand goes back to his lap. I know that he worries about my Mom. For the oast number of years he was her primary caregiver. Preparing meals, making tea. Then coffee. Then tea again. Helping her fasten her bra, pull up her pants. Putting in her earrings and brushing her hair. Every morning he would bring Sally (the dog) to lie with her while he makes her tea. Gentle. Kind. Incredibly patient. He would then sit in his study and read his bible.
Today the caretaker of the caravan park in Witsand came to visit “die Oom”. Shock and disbelief, on Thursday my dad still visited him. A message comes through later – “die Oom was my rolmodel”.