In the last two-way conversation we had, I said to my father: ‘Mum says you wanted to tell me something dad?’ He paused. I stood holding the phone in a Manhattan hotel. My hair was wet. It was 8am in New York City and 10 pm in Melbourne.
‘Not now. If and when it’s necessary, Annie. If and when it’s necessary,’ he said.
What did this mean? What did he need to tell me? When would it be necessary? Why could he not tell me then? I panicked. There were people in the hospital room; he had visitors. It is hard to reconcile sometimes that they were there when I was not. I can believe now that he needed to say ‘I’m dying.’ I’m hoping that he wanted to say ‘I love you’.
Flying to New York City for my milestone birthday was a big deal for myself and my partner. We had planned for months, booked and re-booked tickets, researched hotels and created a complex spreadsheet to manage our children, who were to be left behind. Dad had been sick for a number of years at this stage, having had multiple hospital admissions the previous year. He was clinging hard to life, and was determined that he’d be resuscitated at all costs. He had even been exploring the notion of a kidney transplant.
We called him an enigma–he had survived so many scares. Once, when he thought he was on the way out, home alone and in pain, he began a message to his family. The subject line, referencing his love of Australian Rules football, was: ‘Time on, final quarter.’ The message went unsent. I have never found its contents, the words he wanted to say then. He survived. Play on! The unpredictable bounce once again confounded and entranced us.
Before taking previous holidays, I had agonised over whether I should leave him. One year, I called his specialist, then bailed him up in the hospital corridor, demanding to know if going on dialysis would kill my father. ‘But could he have a heart attack? Could he have a stroke?’ Well, yes, he could, but all manner of things ‘could’ happen, the doctor said.
If I left, he might die, but if I chose to stay, I felt like the script I had written read: ‘daughter cancels holiday, convinced dad is going to die.’ And in doing that, I would cause him to die. Of course, he would die whether I stayed or went, one day; my choices did not make me the editor of his story. But still, I felt I’d somehow be responsible. Such is the hope and burden of love.
I agonised over whether to leave that time. From his hospital bed, he held my arm. Perhaps because it was so rare, so so rare, I can still feel his soft hand, clasped around my forearm. His skin was papery and mottled.
‘You should go to Noosa, Annie,’ he said.
‘I’ll send you sunsets,’ I said.
And so, I left that time, putting hope before fear. He was still there when we came home, thousands of kilometres later. That time.
But when we had flown to New York City, that was a different story; we were latitudes and longitudes apart. And if I could do anything in the world, it would be to untwist time, to take the dateline and the distance and the hours and wrestle it all into a path back to see my father. But I couldn’t write that script. I had to make my own timeline. I did not get back in time to see him, or hear what he wanted to say.
Instead, in his last 48 hours, I had watched Al Pacino in a bad play, ridden Citi Bikes across the Williamsburg Bridge, caught the East River Ferry and viewed Picassos at MOMA. Instead, I had the memory of a soft hand on my arm, the memory of the first person in the world to call me Annie.
We missed him by a morning and a night, by the turning of the globe, as time unbuckled itself and found its own path. As I flew home, racing back to see him, I dreamed I was taking a photograph: I could see the hospital room, a few random objects in my field of vision. From the top corner of the camera’s frame, dad’s eye loomed in, cheeky, affectionate, smiling. It was the time of his passing. He had visited, but I never heard the thing he wanted to say.
When is it necessary for a parent to say those words? Those words we might wait a lifetime to hear, as special as the rare touch of hand on arm. It always was necessary.
Now I can sense those words in his loving eye as it loomed into my dreamy photograph, high above the playing field, in the clouds and beyond the final siren, telling me ‘I love you’, at the time that it was necessary.
First published in The Guardian, 28 March 2019