I was born twenty years after my oldest brother and eleven years after my youngest. Aged four, I sat on my father’s lap whilst he showed me black and white photographs in a family album. The photographs had my parents and four brothers in them but I was nowhere to be seen.
‘Where am I Dad?’ My confused four-year-old self enquired.
“You weren’t even thought up yet. You were just a twinkle in the sky.” Dad replied.
In Australia, we value mateship. My Dad was my cobber. We shared a love of music, beer, Australian football and the great outdoors. Dad was the trifecta — he was a good bloke, a gentleman and a loveable larrikin.
Throughout my life, Dad would journey through cancer, strokes, the onset of dementia and full blindness. Life was certainly testing him — taking away one faculty at a time.
Seeing my father slowly reduced to a mere shell of his former self was agonising. I wanted to reject this new reality. I wanted my vibrant and self-assured Dad back — yet he was nowhere to be found.
Role reversal is a common theme among children with ageing parents yet this knowledge doesn’t make it any easier when you’re experiencing it first-hand. It feels ironic. It feels uncomfortable. It feels undeniably wrong.
Playing an ‘adult’ to the man that created me felt somewhat derogatory and patronising. I didn’t want to make life choices for my Dad. Our new reality felt strangely lopsided and upside-down.
As Dad courageously trespassed through new terrain. I refused to accept this ‘new’ version of my father. I didn’t like the narrative and I resisted it with every cell of my being. I journeyed through feelings of denial, grief and anger. I journeyed through feelings of extreme sadness.
One time, I even felt annoyed with Dad. Because how dare he have the audacity to get cancer? And how dare he suffer not two strokes but three?
I felt incredible shame for my ‘true’ feelings regarding my father. What kind of human being reacts so callously? I had arrived at the conclusion that I was a cruel and uncaring daughter. I had arrived at the conclusion that I was evility personified. Why was I making myself the victim? When clearly I wasn’t. Why was I making my father’s personal journey all about me?
My mother picked up on my struggle and we talked through the night over copious glasses of wine. Mum made me realise that I was acting out because of my monstrous love for my Dad and the fear of where his journey could terminate.
The hardest decision we ever made as a family, was putting Dad in a nursing home — — it felt like we were abandoning him. But the care he needed escalated and deepened in complexity. Sadly, there was no other choice.
I was only in my early twenties when Dad entered the aged care facility and it shattered my heart into a zillion pieces. Dad was a large part of my fabric and to have him living in an aged care home, only three streets away — brought about an eerie sense of disconnectedness. Moments that once were perceived as inconsequential now revealed great color and meaningfulness.
- Feeding Dad solids in the nursing home courtyard under the penetrating Western Australian sun
- Helping Dad with small day-to-day tasks like dressing and undressing
Every moment with Dad seemed urgent and important. The small upsets of our life had organically fallen to the wayside. What really mattered was now in sharp focus. The whole experience with Dad had changed my life perspective.
I’d been pulled back to earth with a gigantic thud. It shook me up. Woke me up. It expanded my ability to be compassionate. My rose-colored naivete had evaporated. I had to put my big-girl panties on and finally grow up.
I had been invited to Tasmania to perform in a festival for ten days. It was a paid gig and I craved to get away and socialize with others of a similar age. I asked Mum, if she was okay with me leaving and as usual she was fully supportive. I spent the rest of the week, packing for my trip, purchasing new clothes and learning my lines for the performance. Performing could be cathartic for internal pain and I was looking forward to channeling my anger via artistic expression.
The day before I left for Tasmania. I visited Dad’s aged care home around noon. He was seated with other elderly people in the dining room, having his lunch.
I didn’t stay for long but as I walked away to leave, I turned around and he was looking at me. I waved at him from the door and as he went to wave back — he dropped his fork on the ground.
Who knew that a simple memory would become such a poignant moment of my life? That moment would be the last time my father would ever get to see me visually.
While I was away in Tasmania, Dad had his third stroke and when I returned home, he had lost his sight and was fully blind. Some types of pain are difficult to describe. But I had the same protective instinct over my ill father — — that I assume a parent has for their child.
The pain gnawed away in my gut — — spread out and enveloped my organs. I felt hollow. There seemed to be nothing inside of me but a vat of emptiness. To witness someone you love, my biological father no less, endure so many setbacks, drove me to anger and fits of madness.
I couldn’t fathom why this was happening? And there was no-one or nothing — — that could give me a satisfactory answer. Life was unjust and that’s all there was to it.
I didn’t have the luxury of stewing over my Dad’s demise. I had a gravely ill father who needed my undivided attention. I had a mother who was going through chemotherapy for brain cancer. I gently scooped the broken pieces of my heart off the floor and metamorphosed into a functioning human being again.
Dad’s blindness stole his ability to do many of the things he loved — — such as reading the newspaper or watching live sporting matches on TV. Touch, taste and sound were his primary senses now and I did everything in my power to delight them:
- I hooked up his record player in his nursing home room. We would spend afternoons together, listening to his favourite Vinyls.
- I snuck an abundance of Dad’s favorite sweets into his room unbeknown to Mum and the nursing home staff. Dad and I would make ourselves painstakingly nauseous from the sugar overload.
- I would massage Dad’s very frail arms and legs with aromatherapy creams — softening his papery skin and soothing his many body aches.
These offerings seemed small. But at the altar of grave illness, they held such meaning. Dad didn’t live very long after his third stroke. He lost his appetite and I would often arrive at the nursing home to find him weeping.
How does a young woman extinguish the burning pain in her elderly father’s life? I felt limited and utterly useless. To pretend that I could even fathom what Dad was experiencing, was an act of stupidity. So instead, I remained silent and listened. Dad rarely desired to have conversations nowadays but when he did — — I was present and open eared. My father had always been a man of action and few words. He didn’t talk about anything he was going to do — — he simply did it.
On a wintry Perth evening in June, I walked into Dad’s room to find him tucked up in bed — — crying. Instrumental music was playing on the radio in the background. After greeting Dad and hanging his clothes in the wardrobe. I sat on the edge of the bed and gently laid my head against his chest, absorbing his melodic breaths while he stroked my hair.
I was a young woman yet I felt like a four-year old girl again. Our life had traveled full-circle. After several minutes of bonding in silence, Dad asked:
“Vanessa, do you love me?”
I was SHOCKED. Deep and meaningfuls weren’t Dad’s strong suit. I don’t believe Dad had ever uttered loving words aloud in my lifetime but he didn’t need to — he conveyed how he felt about me via his actions.
“Of course I love you Dad.” I belted out, through tears.
“Because I adore you.” My father responded.
It was like the finishing note in a ballad.
Less than a week later, Dad would breathe his last breath and my life would never be the same again.
There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about my father. But in life and death — — we are inextricably woven.
Vanessa de Largie is a freelance journalist based in Australia.