Yesterday marked the ten year anniversary when we said goodbye to my Pa.
We laid him to rest a decade to the day yesterday, and my biggest fear is that I will forget. A fear that I will forget what growing up with him being in a wheelchair for 15 years meant to us, a fear that I will forget how much he loved us, a fear that I will even forget what he looked like.
That is why I write. I write to remember, to allow my words to bring forwards the outlines of his face again, to remember what it meant to be raised by this remarkable man, in his fullness and frailty, remembering him both with fondness, and with tears. These are some notes I wrote a few years ago, and I share them with you today.
The brain is an amazing organ. It controls our emotions, thoughts, sensations and actions. It reminds us of things, helps us learn, smile, laugh and cry. Strangely enough, the brain has no pain receptors, which means that you could actually stick pins and needles into the brain itself and you will not perceive pain. This is how open brain surgery can be performed while the patient is still alert and awake on the table.
It is, however, sitting in a very confined space - it floats in cerebrospinal fluid and the skull enveloping it is rigid, which makes it a great protector, but unrelenting in its permission of space.
The skull, being obdurate, will cause whatever build-up of fluid to be transmitted to the brain, and it has very little choice but to be squashed, and to be pushed out through the only exit there is - the little hole at the bottom of the skull where the spinal cord exits.
My Dad's brain must have been herniating through that single orifice that August evening when he was in bed doing his routine push-up exercises when he collapsed onto the bed and into a coma.
My brother, who was watching TV in the adjoining living room at the time had rushed to his side, hearing Pa crash into the bed. According to him, the last two words that Pa said before collapsing into the coma from which he would never wake was -
I wonder if Pa's life flashed before him in those last moments. All his childhood memories, his ambitions, dreams, hopes and fears coursing through his minds in those last few seconds before oblivion. His triumphs, his tragedies, his laughter, his tears, all of life's experiences encapsulated into two words - the two words that describes the deer-in-headlights feeling of how life throws you a curveball just when you think that you've got it all figured out.
I See You
The double doors of the ICU opened before us, and the hum and beeps of machines working to salvage the dying greeted us. We turned left, and seeing my Dad for the first time since the collapse took me aback, and I had to choke back my tears.
It is a surreal experience seeing your loved ones with multiple tubes and wires sticking out of them, immobilised to the hospital bed. There are machines that help with the breathing, others that monitor the heart rate and blood pressure and oxygen saturations. The intravenous lines hydrate them and give them life-saving medications while other tubes drain their bladders.
All things seek to reassure you that the patient - be it your father, your mother, your brother, your wife, your friend, your son, your daughter - is still alive. All the mystery of life reduced to the mathematics of numbers.
We stood silently by his side.
The first thing that I noticed were the headphones attached to his ears. There was nothing in my medical training which identified the headphones to fit in with the rest of the picture, so my eyes traced them all the way to an MP3 player.
"We're playing some of his favourite songs," my brother read my mind. "They say that it could be helpful as they can sometimes still hear things when they are comatose." I afforded a weak smile, and prayed that he was right.
The next thing I noticed was Pa's half shaven head, where the neurosurgeon had to drill a hole in his head for the emergency decompression. The scars were still fresh, and the hair on the other side of his head was unkempt, giving Pa a semi-Frankensteinian appearance.
We stayed with him that night, and read to him from Psalms 23 while we held his unresponsive hands and prayed.
That was when his eyelids started to flicker.
At first we thought we were imagining things, but they were definitely flickering. Mum's face lit up with excitement as she called for the nurses to come and take a look at this. They walked up to Pa absently and then ambled away dismissively.
We were filled with joy, on the other hand, and began excitedly to talk to Pa again. His eyelids seemed to flicker appropriately in response, and I know that he heard us when we told him how much we loved him and thanked him for the love that he had shown to us throughout the years.
I told him about how I was getting on in medical school in Australia, and we talked about many different things that night, although Pa could only engage in the conversation through the voice of his eyelids.
Before we left that night, I had a moment alone with Pa. I leaned over to kiss him, and thanked him again for his love and sacrifice for us throughout the years. It was then when my common sense kicked in, and I knew that even if Pa did recover from this massive cerebral incident, he would probably be in a vegetative state all his life.
So I leaned forward and whispered into his ear that he was free to leave us as he had fully accomplished his role as our father and Mum's husband. I said goodbye to my father then, and invited him to the light, promising that we would meet him there again someday.
My Father's Chair
It was soon time to leave, and I was packing to go back to Melbourne. We were all spent physically and emotionally, and there was no room to enjoy Malaysia like I normally would.
I stood with my suitcase in the living room and started tossing my clothes into the vacuous Hush Puppies luggage. Out of the corner of my eye I caught the curtain that separated the little enclave where Pa had slept every night.
The purple plastic rack that held all his clothes was still brimming with shirts my father wore not three weeks ago. Work pants that were several sizes too big and hung loosely around his ample belly sat quietly on the top shelf of the makeshift rack. Next to them were the large woolly socks that used to keep his lifeless feet warm at night, which upon reflection, he must have put on out of habit more than necessity. I'm sure that his feet would have rejoiced at the touch of cold, if only to remember what cold felt like.
Through an opening sat the now empty wheelchair, motionless; the wheeled prison now without its captive, who had finally broken free. The wheelchair was symbolic of Pa, our very reminder that he was there with us.
I walked up to the wheelchair, and gently lowered myself into it. I felt the armrests that had been duct-taped countless times, tracing the spokes of the wheels and the cold steel rims, and feeling the rubber wheel on my hands as I pushed it forwards. The wheelchair squeaked against the marble floor with purpose, and my heart broke at the familiar sound.
I did a single lap of honour around the living room in memory of Pa, and finally closed my eyes and rested in the spirit of my father one last time.
If I could tell Pa one thing today, is that we are all doing okay. Our worlds have been very different without him in it - we still miss his humour, his wisdom and his quiet strength.
I hope he can still look upon us today - his sons still feeling their way through this world and trying their hardest to be good honest men; his daughter, the apple of his eye, standing bravely up to whatever the world throws at her; his wife, my Mum, showing immense strength and grace as she continues to valiantly live a life without him - and be proud.
May you rest in peace, Pa, knowing that your time on earth was a meaningful one. We live on as your legacy, and carry with us the understanding of what it really means to live life to the full no matter what it may bring.