His greatest fear was of his body dying around his youthful, dynamic and brilliant mind.
At 73 my father could still not accept old age. For every year he was meant to retire from his job as professor, then later solicitor and judge, he would respond with frustration, shoo’ing us away with the promise of “next year”. His intellect was as zealous, tantalising and probing as that of any young academic, and his job defined every part of his being. He was also still actively playing sport nearly every day, be it tennis, swimming or cycling. Having survived heart surgery and cancer, he was more full of life than most 20 year olds I knew and he always seemed indestructible to me.
It was the 31st January 2008. I was sitting at my desk at the conveyancing law firm where I had just got a job and was sneakily reading my emails before getting on with the daily photo-copying, when an email popped up from my older sister in Germany. All it said was “Ring me”. It was too short a message to be good news, too abrupt to be anything trivial. As I phoned the number to my home in Germany, the one I had rung a thousand times all my life, I had no idea what was to come.
Papa is dead. He went to bed last night and didn’t wake up again this morning.
My father was of the older generation. Anything domestic always completely baffled him and if my godmother (his wife) was ever away for more than an hour, she had to leave strict instructions on how to heat a pre-cooked meal (we are sure he ended up eating them cold to save on the hassle of it all!). Memories of him trying to reheat food in a plastic bowl on the stove, are a favourite memory among my family, who knew the sensitive and mindful man behind the great public image. In any household kind of way, he was a considerable amateur. But when it came to his job, he was King. He was at the top of his game and so it came to no surprise to any of us that at 72 – the year he really was going to retire – he set up his own law firm in the cellar of the house he built.
He was terrified of not being mentally or physically fit enough to continue doing his job. It wasn’t just a job to him. It was who he was, where he won. Where the World and everyone in it respected him. He could not have coped if he’d had to retire. But slowly his body around him was starting to give up; his pacemaker a constant reminder of his fragility.
When my sister called me that unforgettable and dark morning, I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I understood the words but they weren’t making sense. I thought it was a sick joke. But no one was laughing. How could he be dead? He had been jogging the day before. He had been going to work, making a fuss of eating healthily, motivating his children to be better. How could he have gone? Without saying goodbye.
Suddenly my brain went into overdrive. When had I last seen him? What was the last thing I said to him? Why had I not gone over to visit more often, made use of the short time we still had together? Time that I had now been robbed of. Time I will never get back no matter how many times I closed my eyes and wished to go back to before I read that email.
There are moments in our lives that will always haunt us. The ones where we’re so desperate to travel back in time; they take hold of us, strangling us until there’s no air left and we are forced to realise that what is happening is real, that it isn’t a joke and that nothing will ever be the same again. That not only has a person you loved died, but a part of you and your life as you have known it has too.
All this went through my mind, body and soul within seconds of that call. Then the heartbreaking realisation: who had found him like that. No longer him, but just a hollow shell left behind?
My godmother, the great woman behind the great man. She had, as always, been up long before everyone else to get breakfast ready. She had gone to check if my father was already awake, and assuming he was still sleeping, left him to rest a little while longer. When she went back again, she realised the horrific truth; that he had died in the night while sleeping next to her.
No warning. Gone. Just like that.
For years I was able to pretend he was still there, alive, in the house I loved which was as much a part of our family. I didn’t want to accept that this man, whom I felt I hadn’t even known enough about yet because I thought we had time, was gone. But I couldn’t run from the grief forever and it eventually caught up with me tenfold.
It felt like something had savagely scraped out a part of my soul from deep within me.
I felt pain physically and doubled over in the agony of memories. I desperately searched my mind and clung to the images of time together that now seemed lost, while at the same time trying to push them out because I couldn’t bare to think of him any longer. Because I knew that those times were never again to be repeated, never even to be reminisced about with him.
To know he would never know my husband, meet my children or see me succeed in a life I had so far messed up.
The pain of loss doesn’t go away. It just comes less often. My family and I speak of him often now, that pain less severe and instead replaced with pride, laughter and love.
My father died in the exact way he had always told he us he wanted to; in his sleep with no pain, no slow depreciation of his health until he had become physically and mentally dependent on those around him. It was almost as if he had done it on purpose. Had pulled his own plug.
Even as he took his last breath he was going to determine his own fate, as he had done all his life.