Swansong

Issue sevenIssue Seven Nonfiction

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by Wendy J. Dunn

The nurse bends over Dad with her stethoscope and listens to his heartbeat. ‘Not long now,’ she mutters under her breath, not speaking to us.  She stiffens, straightening up. She turns around, her eyes flinching away from what she sees. ‘Not long now,’ she repeats louder, fiddling with the nurse’s watch pinned to her uniform. I stare at her, standing there, apart from us, apart from this too real human drama. She studies her watch as if it tells the moment of death. Dad’s raspy-throat breathing is the only sound I hear.

I huddle in closer to his bed. Dad is the unmoving bridge connecting my two sisters on one side, my brother and I on the other. I gaze across him and see the mirror image of grief.

How different things are now.

As children, I don’t think any of us would have cared if he lived or died. When he had his stroke twenty years ago, a stroke leaving him with a paralysed leg and arm, I believed it was God’s judgement falling upon him. He deserved that and more for the hell he made of our family home.

For a long time after his stroke, I hated and resented the duty imposed on me as his daughter to care for him, but I wanted to help my mother. The years of listening to him over cups of tea made me understand the deep wounds he had suffered in life; wounds that had never healed. A seven-year-old boy forced to drown a litter of puppies he had found; the eleven-year-old evacuated during the second world war to be placed with a family who beat and starve him. A fourteen-year-old boy who loved books and learning forced out of school to work in a back-breaking job he hated. I realized I had to forgive him, and to move on. I could not change the past, but I could change the future. My future.

Dad’s face is parchment white, so white it seemed to possess far less substance than the sheets swaddling his body, now tucked in tightly to stop his arms from flailing out. I close my eyes tight and shift on the hard hospital chair. There’s no need for the nurses to worry about that now. Dad’s agonized struggle against pain ended hours ago. Heavily dosed with morphine, he shows little sign of life.

I watch his chest lift a little and fall back again in defeat. Poor old Dad. From his earliest years, he fought to live; life, his lost war. His high, tremulous voice, older than his years, speaks in my mind.

If you asked me about life, I’d ask you this – what’s the point of it? See – I’m seventy-one years old with a body that’s a millstone around me bloody neck. Since m’stroke, you might as well cut off me arm for all the use it is – as well as other parts of m’body I won’t mention. If there’s a God, I reckon he’s got a devilish sense of humour.

What’s the point of life, I ask? I never wanted much: a roof over me head, a bit of good earth to garden and food in m’stomach.

I’m not stupid. I knew there would be an end to it one day. But it’s hard to think back, to think back on the bloody nothing of me whole life. There’s so much I haven’t done. So much I wanted to do. I wasn’t born stupid. It would be better if I had been.

The nurse doesn’t say one more word to us. She slinks away, disappearing to the other side of the drawn curtains. Closing them behind her, making her claim on life, she leaves us to wait for death.

‘How are you today, Mrs Farell?’ The nurse’s false, cheery voice, amplified like a loud radio, grates at my nerves. Listening to the woman’s reply from the other bed, I clench my hands into tight fists. Couldn’t we have some privacy? For the last three mornings, even the cleaner, whistling, mind you, would bustle into the room with his mop and metal bucket, slopping water, swishing his mop over the floor, dragging the bucket behind him until its tinny clatter and muffled screech against the linoleum threatened to drive me to the edge. I wanted to scream for silence, for respect for a dying man who slipped in and out of consciousness. Before the morphine, during his long periods of seemingly oblivion, he had jerked and fidgeted at any loud noise.

‘Remember when he drank the green dishwashing detergent?’ my younger brother asks no one in particular. I gaze at him and then away. His anguish is visible. I hold myself against my own pain, helpless to give comfort. Despite my nearness to my brother and sisters, like them, I swirl, disconnected, submerging in and out of private sorrow.

Across the bed, my older sister laughs a little. Her laughter cracks, skating near tears. ‘He thought it was cordial.’

My younger sister booms out a laugh before speaking as if there is no one else in the room but us. ‘He blamed Mum for trying to poison him. Mum said she’d have done a better job of it than leaving a bottle of made up detergent under the sink for him to drink.’

Looking at the closed-in face of my father, I smile at the memory. At the time, I hadn’t smiled – just cowered, too frightened to move and draw his attention, as my mad-eyed father shouted and cursed, his large hands beating the air as they often did us. Now, in the hospital bed, Dad looks vulnerable, no longer the giant who, for too many years, cast a dark, frightening shadow on my early years.

‘What’s the good of you?’ he would yell. ‘Bloody useless; bloody useless.’

I pull the sheet over his partly exposed hand, touching his cold skin. Once I wanted him dead. Prayed for him to be dead. His major stroke when I was nineteen began the long, long twenty-years journey to find forgiveness, and closure.

At the beginning, I had not believed I could ever forgive him. He had made my childhood and teenage years so miserable.  His verbal abuse and beatings continued, relentlessly, until, at sixteen, he broke my spirit. I was then too terrified of him to know, or care, about my father’s own misery and torment. I was too young to have any understanding about how life had fragmented him into a man always at war with himself, and those around him. I only feared him, hated myself for fearing him. At sixteen, it was far easier to try to take my own life than try to kill my father.

I swallowed down all the tablets in a full bottle of painkillers, and my father rushed me to the hospital in stony, angry silence. He said not a word in reply to the doctor’s harsh grilling. I couldn’t make sense of it. I spoke back to him – he belted me black and blue. When I tried to kill myself, he acted like a man terrified.  My home an unwinnable battlefield, it was almost a relief when he told me at seventeen I was old enough to look after myself; he no longer wanted me at home.  Now I wonder if he feared, that if I stayed, I would try again to take my own life.

I hated him until his stroke awoke in me a stirring of compassion.  The following years opened my eyes to a man scarred by growing up in poverty, unable to free himself of the fear of ending up in the ‘poor house’, embittered by lack of opportunities and broken by his own abusive upbringing. I learned to respect and pity him – to see the tragedy of his life.

I also remembered the times he had been a loving father. When we were small, he used to tell us stories. One time, he taught us to play poker and gamble for our pocket money. But he always shut the door on that gentler and caring father I yearned for. He believed in the cruelty of life so much he did his children no favour by giving us kindness. Life was about survival. I believe now he wanted us to survive. He was willing to sacrifice our love to ensure it. Staring at my dying father, I hear his voice again.

I’m a Londoner, born in the slums of the Isle of Dogs; and a dog’s life I lived there, too. Don’t get me wrong. Me poor Mam tried her best – but what could you do when you’re born dirt poor?

Every time the old man came home from sea, he pushed us little ones out of the only real bed in the two rooms we called home. There were six of us little ones. You’d think us Catholic, excepting for the condoms m’mam hand-washed and hung out to dry next to the kitchen fire when Da wasn’t on the ships. Didn’t stop her belly swelling with a new baby year after year. Me stomach turned at the sight of the doctor and his Gladstone bag.

There was never enough food to fill our stomachs, but Mam always found us something to eat. See – when I was six a lorry driver drove over m’little brother, squashed him flat like a beetle underfoot. Grieving we may have been, but I still got his dinner that night.

Mam loved me best. Don’t ask me why. She put up with me through thick and thin. Dad was a cruel old bastard. He never needed an excuse to beat us – belt, stick, fist, whatever was close at hand. Makes me laugh now. See, his four sons grew up to tower over him.

I look around, once more confronted by my mother’s absence. The doctors had told Mum not to expect him to outlive the day, yet an annual social gathering with friends had the greater claim on her. There must have been something once between my parents. Four kids together proved that. I shake my head. Four kids proved nothing. My mother endured years of mental and physical abuse from my father. More so than us. Three times in my teenage years she was admitted to a mental asylum. The one really mentally ill was Dad. He never received any help, and we all suffered because of it.

But I eventually understood something in my adult years; wretched in his marriage, badly damaged by life, Dad had never deserted us. A bastard of a father, but still our father. We acknowledged that by sitting here together, not wanting him to die alone.

A metallic rattle becomes louder and louder. Through the narrow opening of the curtains, I see the tea trolley before the plump, middle-aged woman who pushes it into the room.

‘Cuppa tea, luv?’ she asks the other patient. Her voice is bright, cheerful, oblivious to this place and time of dying.

Turning to my brother, I meet his eyes. I know we are both thinking about last week, when the sound of a tea trolley aroused our father out of unconsciousness. That was after his first heart attack. No one expected him to survive then, too, but we all forgot about his love of food.  A tea trolley entered his ward on the second day and he woke up, asked for a cuppa, meat pie, and started talking about coming to his grandson’s christening.

Before the week came to an end, the hospital decided to return him to the High Care unit where he had lived for close to a year. He hated it there. On the way back, in the ambulance, he had another heart attack. There was no hope for recovery this time.

Once more, I put my own life on hold and spent three long days by his bed, occasionally taking my turn alone, more often with my brother and sisters, watching and waiting for death to come. The only thing that had kindled him into some semblance of consciousness was his painful labour to die.  Or was it his fight to live?

I try not to dwell on that. Only four hours ago, I had begged the nurse to give him morphine, unable to bear it when he emerged back into semi-consciousness as a bulging-eyed mad man who writhed and cried out in agony and terror, his eyes begging for help.

‘Are you certain?’ she had asked. She solemnly considered me as I babbled out my yes through my tears. The nurse injected him with morphine and I came up for air. I realized what was behind her look. That injection quickened and ensured my father’s death. Over and over, I had prayed for his death as a teenager. Now I could barely breathe every time I thought about that injection.

Stop it. He is no longer suffering; stop thinking you’re responsible for his death. Think back to yesterday, sitting here with your brother and sisters, swapping funny stories of growing up with Dad. Living in the midst of it was rarely funny. But we learnt to hide our misery with laughter. We had to; crying was for weaklings. He taught us that. Poor Dad. He never learnt any different. Or perhaps he did.

My eyes still on my dying father, I remembered the brief time, only a day ago, when his walls finally came down. At the end of another story, Dad had opened his eyes and looked at us with pride. He gazed at us like a father, and a man amused at how his life had turned out. ‘I love you.’ His hand tightened its grip on mine.  ‘I love you all,’ he said. The words he never said when we were children. The words he never could say. Then he had slipped away again, but not before we received his blessing.

Dad had sung his Swansong – the song mattering most.