Goodbye Dad

Ross Hartley's time was running out.

My dad died almost a year ago. It was expected. At 78 years of age, he had suffered from cancer for the previous twelve months. So his death came as no surprise. My reactions, by contrast, did.

For 27 years - ever since I had become an adult - I had wanted to tell my father that I loved him. I read recently, in the first edition of Men's Health, that being able to tell your father that you love him is one of the 50 events in a man's life that define manhood. That, and having sex in a car (preferably with someone else), and 48 other equally interesting measures.

For years, I had read books and been to seminars, where the importance of forgiving and loving your parents was stressed. As I say, for 27 years I had wanted to, and even tried to, at times. Once or twice with my father in particular.

But I never could. The words choked in my throat. Or I gave him a sizzle plate - remember when they were popular, back in the seventies? As if the plate said the words I couldn't. Which they didn't.

On hearing of his cancer diagnosis, did my world change? Was I shattered? Well, as a matter of fact I wasn't. I don't recall that I was sad even. Perhaps there was more relief than anything else. Relief that we kids - all middle aged by now - would not have to care for him in his old, old age. And no, I didn't feel callous. I just let the feelings float over me. Accepting whatever the feelings were. My feelings. Neither attempting to change them, nor feel guilty that they might have been the wrong ones.

As his death got closer - and yes he was notably wasting away - I became acutely aware that my time was running out. Not his, but mine. Three times I had traveled interstate to see him. And to tell him that I loved him. Three times I had returned simply having shaken his hand on my departure. I just could not do it.

Images of those three-minute egg timers came to mind. Except that I had already made my last visit to him. Now I would have to make my peace with a corpse, or a block of turf out at the cemetery.

My last effort was to write to my dad, asking him to write me something. Anything about me. How had I done in his eyes? Did I turn out all right? Was he proud of me? Was I a success? In other words, did he love me? Though I couldn't ask, and he, of course, could not reply - even if I had been able to ask.

He got my letter; mum told me so. I waited for his reply. And I waited. Nothing came. And it didn't matter that he could not respond. I came to understand that it was not that he didn't want to answer my letter. Rather he just couldn't. He didn't know what to say; he was from an earlier generation.

He told others how proud he was of each of us. Just couldn't tell us. So I never did get to hear my father tell me that he loved me. And that's okay. What's important is that I was able to ask him. Not in person mind you, but by mail. Better than nothing. That was a huge step for me. What we might call a growth experience. It was the asking that was important. The answer would have been nice; rather like the icing on top of the cake, though.

My sister phoned in April and suggested I see him one last time. By now he had been in hospital for three months. She described him simply as a nice old man - not a term any of us would ever have thought to use to describe our dad.

And he was. It was so sad seeing him in the ward, on his bed, just waiting to die. I saw him three times that visit. Each time the tears just rolled down my cheeks. Never before had I cried in front of my father. I held his hand, or he held mine. We didn't actually say much. He bought me an ice-cream each day, reminiscent of my childhood, when I was very young. Perhaps fathering to dad equated to buying the kids ice-creams. I'll never know now. Finally, it was time for me to leave. But five minutes left in my father's life. The egg timer just about empty. I still didn't know if I could do it. Frightening isn't it? What was I so afraid of?

As I stood to leave I bent down to hug him, something else I had never before done. I was crying. And the words just came out. I said thanks for being my dad - the ownership bit was important - and that I loved him.

There, I had said it. After 27 years. He just held me. I don't recall what he said. Again, it didn't matter. The important thing was what I had said.

As I left the room, I looked back and he waved. That's the last I saw of my father. Two weeks later he died.

Looking at him in the coffin, I had no particular feelings. Tears trickled down my cheeks during the service. Carrying him out of the church with my brothers was no big deal either, nor watching him being lowered into the ground. Later that evening, my mum, my son and I threw a single red rose into the ocean from the nearby jetty.

I haven't felt the need for tears since I last held my father. I have often wondered why, and whether I should feel guilty about it. But I don't. I wasn't close to my dad. We weren't good friends, nor was he a confidant. He was just dad. I got to say to him what needed to be said. He got to hear it. And it was time for him to move on. And for me too, I guess.

The night before he died, he rang my brother in New Zealand, the black sheep of our family in my father's eyes. And he was heard to say to him that he loved him. A fitting end to dad's life. He could say it after all, and probably in spite of himself.

In doing so he got to mend the one relationship with his children most in need of healing. Even the son, on whose mobile phone the call was made while pushing dad around the grounds of the hospital, didn't get to receive those magic words.

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