Grief, Loss and Losing a Father

Grief can be motivator and inhibitor. It buffers, even repels realities, supplanting them with flowing tears and shaking hale storms.  But it can also be acutely penetrating, insightfully unfurling truths as battle banners for veracity.

Within the shaking body and the unsettled mind, fires of acknowledgment can be lit, the sun peaking from behind the dark night which you believe eternal.  For here he was, a figure so powerful, robust, with turns of eccentric conservatism and irritating pedantry, touched by moments of enormous sweetness and generosity. He lay in a hospital shirt, lying in palliative care.  It would not be long now.

Initially, grief’s battle against the optimistic counter, the refrain of wisdom, is to assert its control.  Solemn King Grief battles the gangly and irritating Prince of Optimism.  Little wonder that death and grief are so fundamentally linked, twinned in roles of captivating, and sometimes paralysing, the human species. Little wonder, as well, that many organised religions offer the padding of an excuse, a reassurance that death is simply the other side of a badly minted coin.

When a close relative, or friend, takes his or her leave to the afterlife, or, perhaps more appropriately, the death domain, we are left as grievers in chief.  This comes in all forms.  In the case of sickened politics and tyranny, there are processes of competitive grieving, involving orgiastic rituals of emotive necrophilia for the deceased. At the death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il in 2012, forced labour camps awaited some who did not put up a seriously grieving face with appropriately directed hysterics.

When it comes to father, to the paternal force who forged your life protectively through a form of guardianship both disciplining yet kind, grief gallops through the doors as his life makes a retreat. Firm support in your mind seems to slip.  Daddy is about to make an exit, so brace yourself.

The man who took your hand to lead you into the moon lit Danish country night to explain why haunted creatures were not going to do their worst lies before you, his face caged by an oxygen mask he detests, his body a medical receptacle for tubes and fluids.  True to mechanical irritation, the machine that blasts his face with oxygen is infuriatingly noisy, turning him into air-conditioned meat before strong hospital lights.  Wards, in such fashion, resemble shopping aisles.

Everything of the man was typical to the last. He desired his own hooks to use even in the oncology ward, an assertion of his own independence against both condition and staff.  Ever the enterprising figure, his Prussian blood acting like a throbbing source of inspiration, he conditioned the environment, disciplining it, bringing it within his domain of appreciation.  He still desired clocks to observe, as if feeling the passage of time as a navigator in open seas keen to absorb a journey into his inner self by digits, numbers and geography.

There was only one way of doing things, and he had, by some form of remarkable awareness, found it.  That, at least, was how he would express it.  He needed to order drawers in a particular way, to identify the appropriate bags to place in bags.  Symbolism here was undeniable: a protection afforded within a protection afforded within a protection, and so forth.

There would be, for instance, the “Basmati bag”, one formerly used to store rice long consumed, but now a spot of meeting for an assortment of other objects, all, in turn, kept in bags (sock, tote, plastic, netted, ribbed).  There was the “German bag”, another ideal repository for other objects that had their fate inked out in his mind, bags included.

He wished for a string to make knots, his strong, meaty fingers able to conjure tricks of strength and power. In an active, cerebral sense, he longed for poetry to be read to him by his family, listening to the soft cadences and articulations of his daughter.

He also thrilled reading himself in a fashion that could even be dogmatic, notably when it came to architectural history and art aesthetics. Voraciously, he would consume Von Christoph Wetzel’s Heiligenlegenden in der bildenden Kunst, then make his way through Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man”.

Then, the lungs began their journey into a painful oblivion, inflaming, tormenting and defeating sleep with a torturer’s dedication. His cell production inflicted their depositing terrors, these blast cells proving inadequate to sustain his body against the cruel curiosities of the Grim Reaper. They were, in fact, the GR’s front troops.

What mattered for him was to be with family, less to see them in grief than to see them in fruitful hope for him. For, in Emily Dickinson’s understanding,

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all.

Grief can therefore come under control, be it through hope, even as it persists in a dying body. It can become a liquor to brave the soul and ready oneself, perhaps to even consider one’s own inevitable passing, the ebbing out into nature like a fretful journey that might, just might steady itself at some point.

As father’s eyes gradually moved into a state of unawareness, cheeks sinking, gauntness appearing, a toasted looking skin ravished by haematological terrorism lightening and thinning, he was still father, man to love, man of vitality.  His life force was simply displacing itself, moving out, through the fingers of those holding his firm hands, chest heaving and then suddenly still. He had only gone as a living person, but as father, he was still there, a man to remembered, loved and adored with devoted, cheery studiousness.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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