On Loss part 3: Wish you were here

My father died in November 2011, four days before my forty second birthday. There was no warning; he died suddenly from a brain aneurysm. Still, I was lucky enough to see him at the hospital in his last hours of life, though by that stage he had lost consciousness.

Until I lost my father, I felt pretty comfortable with the idea of loss. I had never shied away from the topic of death and felt, after years of observation and contemplation (admittedly at arm’s length), that I understood it.

I had rationalised it. I had intellectualised it. I knew about the stages of grief. I had counselled friends who had lost their parents in their teens, in their twenties, in their thirties. Perhaps, because of the phone call I’d overheard as a nine year old all those years before, or perhaps purely coincidentally, I felt as if I’d been preparing myself all my life to lose someone I deeply cared for.

As it turns out, I knew nothing. I was not prepared at all.

Just one example: Yes, there are stages of grief. But they occur randomly, in no specific order, sometimes all at once. Sometimes not at all.

Grief, as someone close to me at the time put it, is like waves that come to your shore. Just when you think you’ve got your balance in the tug and pull of the water, a large wave comes and knocks you off your feet. You can have weeks of nothing and then, out of nowhere, a tsunami.

I knew, given the sudden nature of dad’s death, that I was probably in shock to begin with. We all were to a greater or lesser extent. I thought the shock would wear off and that would be that. But it doesn’t work that way.

I realised upon arriving at work one day, about ten weeks after Dad died, that I had no idea how I’d come to be there, nor how I’d got home every day, nor what I did in the hours in between. I couldn’t account for anything. And yet I worked. I cooked. I talked to people. I walked the dog. I functioned. My inner self was in a fog, even while my outer self carried on with normal life.

On Dad’s death I’d declared to my brother that there would be no regrets; there was no point dwelling in the past. It was what it was.

This turned out to be completely naïve, especially given the relationship I’d had with my dad. Over time I found myself consumed with regret. Regret and guilt. Years after I’d tried to comfort a distressed man on a train, struggling to come to terms with the death of his own father, I found myself tormented by my own demons, my family struggling to find the right words to comfort me.

I still regret that I didn’t make the most of my last hours with Dad as he lay in the emergency ward dying. I spent those hours holding his hand, but I regret not hugging him more, not kissing his forehead or his cheek. It was my last opportunity for physical contact with him and I missed it.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. I didn’t realise that evening how keenly I’d miss his actual presence in my life.

Ironically, when Dad died I had consoled myself with the thought that it was only his physical self that I had lost. His spirit and his energy were both out there somewhere, I was sure of it. And he would always be in my heart and in my mind, right?

It was a completely naïve devaluing of the physical world, as if it meant nothing. But it’s the physical world we live in.

In the midst of the fog I was king hit by an intense physical longing and I struggled to come to terms with it for months and months. While it is no longer as overwhelming or as painful as it was, several years on I still crave the smell of his aftershave and the touch of his soft skin on my lips as I kiss his smooth, freshly shaved cheek hello. Quite simply, I miss him.

In my experience of loss I learnt of the pain of physical longing, the torment of demons, the disconnecting fog. Things that I couldn’t resolve with rational thought or intellectual argument.

My salvation came in the form of a revelation about the nature of life. It was the most important lesson that losing my father taught me.

Very soon after Dad died I realised that, in the end, all that is left is love. Everything else is unimportant.

All of the things we fought about, all of the strongly held principles I had furiously defended – all of them, trivial. All of the hurt, the anger, the arguments, the bitterness. Trivial.

And while this deeply profound and beautiful insight can’t help me go back and fix the wrongs of the past, it has helped me to heal the pain and conquer my demons. It has also completely changed how I view life and my relationship with all the people I love.

I only wish my dad were here, so I could tell him.
my father standing at a bbq with a smile on his face

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On Loss part 2: The phone call

In 1979, when I was I was nine years old and living in Greece, life was pretty innocent. For me it was characterised by a love of family, the character Snoopy, the comic book Asterix and the TV show Charlie’s Angels, which I played out in the streets of my neighbourhood with my friends, recreating dramatic, thrilling and action-filled stories.

Way before they started popping up on Australian city corners, Greece’s main streets were dotted with large períptera, or kiosks/newsstands, every couple of blocks. They sold everything: newspapers, magazines, books, cigarettes, tobacco, lollies, drinks, ice-creams, postcards, toys, souvenirs and lots more. For me the drawcard was the selection of comics, especially my favourite: Asterix. I would look out for a new edition every month and take the opportunity to buy some chocolate or gum at the same time with my saved up pocket money. I couldn’t wait to read about Asterix’s latest adventures and laugh at his one-liners which I thought were hilarious.

Periptero in Thessaloniki with people standing nearby

Importantly, the local períptero also had a telephone that the peripterá (proprietor) would allow people to use as a public telephone for about 10 drachma. Getting a telephone installed in your home back then in Greece could take several years. If you didn’t have infinite patience you needed either a bit of extra money to help loosen the red tape or a personal contact in the OTE (Greece’s national telecommunications provider). Or both.

It was in 1979, standing near a períptero, that I first contemplated the idea that my parents would one day die. As I stood flicking through the comics, a man who looked about my parents’ age at the time, which I realise now would’ve been about 40 years old, asked if he could use the telephone. His call was short. His voice was solemn but not emotional. “Μítso”, he said, “Péthane i mána mou”.

Μἰτσο, πἐθανε η μἀνα μου.

Mitso, my mum has died.

That was more or less all he said, though if the conversation did last another minute or so I don’t remember. All I could hear were those words: my mum has died.

I remember distinctly feeling like my world had suddenly stopped as the words sunk in. All around me life was still spinning but my own inner world was perfectly still. I looked to the man’s face for some clue as to what he was feeling but there was no emotion there. His face was closed. Unreadable.

Immediately I understood the implications of this man’s phone call on my own life. This man had a mother. She had died. I have a mother. One day… One day a long way away in the future, I will have to make a phone call similar to this.

I looked for the man again, hoping to understand his experience better and through him gain some kind of insight into what my future held. I realise now that I had hoped to study him and learn how to deal with the situation, so I could be prepared for when it happened to me. But he had gone. And I knew then that I would have to figure it out – one day a long way away in the future – all on my own.

On Loss part 1: Encounter on a train

It was early July, 2006. A weekday like any other. I was on the train going home. Standing, but I’d got one of the ‘good’ standing spots, in front of a single seat, not wedged between the armpits holding on for dear life near the door.

I didn’t notice the man I was standing in front of at first but as the train took off I realised he was talking to me.

He was wearing overalls and a beanie, was covered in splotches of paint and his speech was punctuated with sips from a can of vodka and coke in his hands. He took the beanie off at one point and I saw he was bald – bald with a long beard. He looked rough, and that, together with the fact that he was slurring his words meant all the commuting office worker types around him on the train were steadfastly averting his gaze and trying to pretend he wasn’t there.

I would have been the same once, but a friend had recently taught me that people that make an effort to talk to you should be treated with dignity and not ignored. Besides, he’d offered me his seat when I got on, and I’d met his eyes as I said, “Nah, mate, she’s right. Thank you.”

He told me his name was George and he asked if I’d been watching the World Cup, in Germany. As it was, I had, and he talked enthusiastically about the Socceroos for about a minute or two before suddenly announcing, “I’m Greek. What nationality are you?” When I said I was Greek too he asked me where my parents were from and told me where his were from.

He rhapsodised about life in Greece, how wonderful it was, how everyone there had their priorities straight.

“That’s the life! Work to LIVE! Not live to work!”

I used his name once and he said he was really touched that I’d used his name and that I was talking to him.

“You’re really nice! Not like those other people! They’re all ignoring me – like I’m some leper!”

The carriage grew silent as his tone raised in anger.

I waited a minute before responding. “Don’t be too upset with people on the train, George. They’ve all had a hard day at work or whatever, just like you. They just want to have a bit of quiet time now so they can recover, you know? Before they go home.”

I could feel people’s eyes on me. I could feel them nodding, ‘Yes’.

He was silent for another minute, maybe thinking about what I’d said. And then out of the blue he told me that his father had died in October the previous year. In fact, what he said was, “I buried my father in October.”

He said, “It really upset me” and explained that was why he had turned to drink. He said he’d always looked up to his father but feared he had never made him proud.

“Now I’m a drunk – he would be so ashamed of me! I’m ashamed of myself!”

You could have heard a pin drop in the carriage. Everyone was listening, their eyes on their books and newspapers but no one reading a word.

George’s eyes had filled with tears.

“I’m sure your dad knew that you loved him and I’m sure he understands how upset you are now that he’s gone. I don’t think he’d be ashamed of you.”

I didn’t know what else to say.

George stood up. I thought he was offering me his seat again but he explained he was getting off at the next stop.

As the train pulled into Camberwell George moved towards the doors and I took his seat. He turned to look at me.

“Thanks…okay? Take care of yourself, alright?”

I nodded. George’s eyes had dried up and his face had hardened again, preparing to feel the cold outside, both physically and emotionally.

I sat and watched him go, tears now welled up in my own eyes as if they’d been transferred from his. Unable to say or do anything else, I offered a weak smile of support as he got off the train. The tears began to flow.

If I must confess

“Forgive me readers for I have sinned
It’s been three months since my last blog post…”

Yep, it’s been three months – in fact, over three months, since my last blog post. In fact, so far this year I’ve written only six posts, while same time last year I’d written 29 posts. Bit of a difference.

It’s not writer’s block. Or at least, I don’t think it is. It’s more stage fright. But then, maybe that’s a kind of writer’s block.

The thing is, I’ve had lots of ideas for posts. I’ve even written a lot of notes. But I’ve had very little motivation to actually sit down and write; and while other areas of my writing have suffered as well, the blog has taken the biggest hit.

I was at a loss to explain it until recently when it finally dawned on me: I lost my confidence. Didn’t think I had anything of interest to say. I’d get ideas and make notes and then think, ‘Oh who cares what you have to say!’ and the momentum would peter out.

The one thing I have had the confidence to continue doing this year is submit my writing for publication, as I’d done with my flash fiction story. I’ve even had a tiny bit of success with a poem I submitted to Good Morning Bedtime Story’s international mental health poetry competition earlier in the year being highly commended; that was pretty thrilling.

The post that follows this one is a piece of short memoir that was originally written for submission to an annual anthology on the theme of “encounters”. When it didn’t make it through, I decided to develop it further and submit it to another anthology; this time the theme was “loss”. I’ve added another part to it and am now working on a third part.

Unfortunately for the anthology, I got my dates wrong and have missed the deadline. But it’s not all bad news: the anthology’s loss is my blog’s gain, as I’ve decided to publish all three pieces here. And I have to confess, it does feel nice to be able to post something that I feel needs to be ‘out there’; specifically to have the confidence to press “publish” once again, without using someone else as a buffer.

Hope you enjoy reading it.