What can I tell you about Dad?
I’m not going to tell you that Dad was born in London in 1945, only ten months after the last German bomb had dropped on the UK. Or that Dad came to Australia with his parents and two younger brothers when he was sixteen. That type of information doesn’t tell you much about the man.
And I don’t feel the need to mention that Dad joined the army. He did basic training at Kapooka and was then based in Melbourne with RAEME, which stands for Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. I remember liking the smell and feel of his beret and that my little sister, Libby, often dressed up in Dad’s army boots. The boots were so tall and she was so small that they came up to her knees.
I don’t mind telling you that had he made it, Mum and Dad would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in August. That’s half a century of hugs.
I’ll leave out Dad’s invitation to join Mensa, an organization for total brainiacs. Dad turned their invite down because they weren’t really his type of people.
What can I tell you about dad?
I could go on for an hour about the various people Dad came into contact with that kept a close eye on his cancer journey and upon hearing of Dad’s passing cried tears to almost match ours.
I could say words like integrity and honesty, stickler, introvert, and railway buff. I could say ‘however’ and ‘marvelous’. I might mention that Dad was a gentle man rather than a gentleman and that he liked it that way.
Instead I’d like to tell you a story.
This year, as you know, my parents would have been married for fifty years. But dad died last week. Still, mum and dad actually were together for fifty years because of meeting, and courting, and getting to know you, and because of the time it takes to fall in love.
Dad had been sick – cancer in his gut, cancer in his brain – for around eighteen months. He spent the best part of those months in one hospital or another, one ward or another.
Hospital beds are high.
My mother is not high. She’s a shade below five foot; now that’s perfect for spotting your keys under the couch, but terrible for being able to connect properly with your beloved as they lay in a high hospital bed. She could barely reach Dad’s lips to kiss them.
And in all this time, for most of this journey, Mum has said, ‘I just want to get into bed with him.’ Of course she would. If I could tuck the safe, warm, forever sensation of lying down next to someone I love into my jeans pocket I would.
Last week, we were able to get Mum into bed with Dad.
It had been days since Dad had opened his eyes. His temperature was up, he’d been twitching and grimacing in his sleep, he’d cried. I’d lifted a tear from the corner of his eye and slipped it onto my t-shirt to mix with my own.
So Mum got into bed with Dad. After months she was able to hold her man. And a kind of magic happened.
Dad’s breathing became less laboured. The heaving, chest-filling inhalations, grew softer. He began to look like he was merely sleeping. My parents lay in the almost dark, and their breathing became matched. Dad was calm, at peace, in the arms of the one he loved most.
I took photos and was struck by how altogether ordinary this magic looked. After all, I’d seen my parents sleeping many times.
But I wasn’t surprised by the magic.
If we want to measure a man, to wrap him up in ideas and sentences, we can do it be how he loves.
Because you can bet if Mum had spent all this time wishing she could lie next to him so had he. Dad was a reserved man but not in his feelings for my mother. The simplest way for me to illustrate who Dad was is to think of his love for my mother. He was strong and vulnerable at the same time. He was loved and loving.
The next day he died.
Perhaps Dad had been waiting for his last hug in a half century.