Its 5am and Khalid and I are in the hotel room in New York, somewhere on 34th street. We’re on our way to Virginia for our first thanksgiving in the USA. Khalid’s brother, wife and the two little ones Oscar and Matilda will meet us at Le Guardia airport, but we still have to pack. We have time. I am watching a great moment of Adele and Graham Norton. Adele has gone undercover with a group of Adele impersonators and it’s both moving and hilarious as she pretends to be herself. I am beaming about it, and talking, and I look up to see Khalid and say something, and he grabs my phone away from me. I am so surprised by his reaction that it catches between irritation and amusement. Why grab my phone? I say that (I think), but Khalid’s face is frozen, and it takes moments to realise that something is wrong. He isn’t responding. I reach for my phone and he pulls away, he won’t hand my phone back. He looks down and I see that he has read a message. Something on his phone. His face has fallen, and I can see a look that is frightening to me. My first thought is that something has happened to one of his nieces or nephews. There is the rising adrenalin of dread. I want him to tell me what’s wrong. I think I say that. There is a drawn out moment and he is looking down. I don’t remember how he says it, but the next thing I know, I know my dad is dead. Inside something reaches out to feel or connect with my father, to call to him – it’s like when you are a kid and you yell and scream, knowing that a parent will arrive to sort out the problem. It’s a desperate, desperate wail that fills up inside me. I look up at the ceiling and search in my heart. The finality of it is total, but there is also a sense that nothing is out of place, like a locking into gear. It feels like a part of me is closed and sealed, and finished. Khalid reaches out and hugs me, and he’s crying, and I think I say something along the lines of “It’s all right”. It is, in that moment at least, it is. For years and years I have imagined this moment, and it has finally arrived, and I never was sure whether I would be prepared or even able to comprehend what it would mean. And here it is, and there simply is nothing to do but feel the total, final and dreadful closing of a part of me.
I have always thought I would be away when my dad died. That’s not a premonition, just a fact. I no longer live in the same country as my parents. I remember my dad telling me the story of when his dad died. He was in Australia, I wasn’t even born. My parents didn’t have the money to fly back, and they didn’t, they stayed in Oz while his father was buried. What will I do? I know the same is true now. If I fly back in a panic, then I will not be able to go back again later, when all this pain is still there for us but the rest of the world has moved on. That’s when I need to be around. I think. Nothing is sure around this stuff, there is no practice run.
I dial my mom. When she answers my adrenalin is spiking because there is a remote and surreal edge to everything. The line is terrible, I phone back. I try again. I am talking about the quality of the line, but speech now seems like babble because my heart is beating to the slow repeated rhythm whispering, “my dad is dead”. When we speak she gives me details. It is heart-breaking. I know I am gasping in air every few seconds as hearing her talk is making this real and my insides are squeezed, wrung out. She says he collapsed. She couldn’t get him to the car and called Jeanette, their doctor, for help. The two of them managed to carry him and then drive to the nearby hospital. He was admitted to ICU, then she was back home to get his toothbrush and clothes (I think I am filling in blanks, the details are sketchy and I don’t want to interrupt). The cardiologist called then. He said, “come now”. She says my dad knew he was going to die, that they talked about giving his body to the medical University, but then no, cremation. I am terrified now, I can’t imagine the fear he would be in, and I am sobbing. I am so afraid for him. Knowing that the story ends in the worst way. She says he talked up to the last ten minutes. Then tried to breathe. He tried to keep on. Then he died. I am so hungry for these details and yet they are completely breaking me and I am making horrible noises, and sobbing. “My dad is dead”. I can’t stop seeing him lying there struggling for breath. I keep imagining the fear of giving up your existence, your life. Of leaving everything and becoming nothing. My mom says he was just worried about us, about her. He didn’t want her to be alone. Hearing this is gut wrenching. “My dad has died”. It’s like I keep trying on the words but they cannot fit in the world. They are too big for it. They cut through the edges.
I look down on the bed at Khalid’s phone. I read the SMS. It says, “Put your arms around Brett and hold him and tell him his father has passed away”. My mom sent it two hours ago. There is the dark edge of a void, skirting hysteria, and absolute hopelessness. And also somehow, this sense of completion. Hearing the story of it breaks me, but concentrating on him feels fine. Feels good almost. It centres me, and I know I don’t need to go home today. That’s coming. Right now, the man who read at my bedside to keep my nightmares at bay is gone. He will never answer the phone again, or tell me how proud of me he is, or be that sure, calm voice of reason in a family of catastrophisers. He simply isn’t any more.
Strange thoughts pop up constantly. I am inside a place where there is no compassion. There is no begging for a different result, or bargaining for time. There is no mercy, and in the face of that, there is no point for fear. Fear is tainted with the hope of a rescinding of the event. Of a remission. But in this place, where fear changes nothing, I feel a steel. A sense of calm.
There are phone calls and packing. We go down stairs to get our cab.
The sun is rising and the doorman is friendly and I feel like saying, “my dad died”. Just to try it out on strangers. I don’t. Smiling feels strange and almost like a small betrayal to his memory. But that’s just the social stuff, the expected stuff. When he comes into my mind, I get a smile. He would be making a joke of it, making light of it. He would say, “Told you I was sick.”
We get in the car because life is not stopping. And we go. Today my dad died. My pops. He is gone, gone, gone. It still won’t fit. I hold him in my heart, because neither of us are going home.