At last

by Greg Bastian

Although my father is not a Buddhist, he lies in the traditional position recommended for dying, the posture of the 'sleeping lion', with the left hand resting on the left thigh, the right hand cradling the chin and closing the right nostril, and with the legs stretched out and slightly bent. His eyes, when he opens them, remind me of oysters. They float and shift in a shell of indifference. Sometimes they snap open and he stares at me. I take his hand and say, "Hi. How're you doing?" He smiles, and his eyeballs sink towards the pillows. I wipe the grey dribble from the corner of his mouth.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: "The body begins to lose all its strength. We cannot get up, stay upright, or hold anything. We feel we are being crushed by a great weight, as if a huge mountain were being pressed down upon us. We may ask to be pulled up, to have our pillows made higher, or for the bedcovers to be taken off. Our cheeks sink, and dark stains appear on our teeth. Our mind is agitated and delirious, but then sinks into drowsiness".

He's been like this for two weeks. We knew he was very ill, and that there was nothing we could do, but when the inevitable final stages came, it was a very serious shock. Last weekend, with little warning, hot tears suddenly boiled up from my throat. My youngest son said to me, "What's the matter, Dad?" and I couldn't speak. I just kept staring out the kitchen window.

"We begin to lose control of our bodily fluids. Our nose begins to run and we dribble. Our lips are drawn and bloodless and our mouth and throat sticky and clogged. We become thirsty. The smell of death begins to hang over us. We feel as if we were drowning in an ocean or being swept away by a huge river".

My mother is managing better than any of us. I've been visiting as often as I can, doing maintenance around the house, helping with the laundry, sitting with my father, and every time I come here she seems quite cheerful. Sometimes we play gin-rummy in the evening and she tells me a few stories about the past. There's lots to know. My parents have been circumspect about their pasts and it wasn't until my father was diagnosed, or misdiagnosed, that I started to take more than a cursory interest in his history.

"All the warmth of our body begins to seep away, usually from the feet and hands towards the heart. Perhaps a steamy heat rises from the crown of our head. Our breath is cold as it passes through our mouth and nose. No longer can we drink or digest anything. Our mind alternates between clarity and confusion. We cannot remember the names of our family and friends, or even recognise who they are."

I hear my mother arrive back from the shops. It's only when she flaps the water from her umbrella that I'm aware it's raining outside. She looks into the bedroom as she passes, then proceeds to the kitchen and begins to put the shopping away.

I focus on my father again. He's gazing up at me. There's no flesh on his face. Just tight, shiny skin like dry wax. Suddenly his face lights up, as if someone switched a light on, and he says, quite clearly and candidly, "Don't leave me in suspenders!"

I lean down closer to him. "No-one's going to leave you. I'm here, Mum's here, Brenda's coming."

His voice trails away and he turns his face to the pillow. My mother comes and stands in the doorway.

"He thought he was in a lodge meeting last night," she tells me. "Something about the sandwiches not being ready. He was sitting up there wagging his finger at somebody."

His eyes have closed and he folds his thin limbs into his body until he could be a newly hatched bird. I release his hand and switch off the tape recorder. Then I draw the bedclothes up around his shoulders and he sighs. I stand for a moment looking down at him and tears smear my vision. At last I am learning to love this old, sick man.

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