I returned to the place of my mother’s death today. A lone hospital room in neutral hues with a view of the blossom trees that line the wide streets of a manicured country village not far from Sydney. The room remains the same, a den dedicated to healing or to helping those transition from one life to whatever comes next. But the stranger now lying within it’s walls is not my mother, though I wish it was if only to get one more hour holding her hand.
There’s the sterile corridor I fled down to inhale life’s oxygen through the door to outside, moments after she took her last breathe. There’s the door to the toilets where I sobbed behind a cubicle partition lest someone public see my private pain and there’s the café where the barista filled an empty coffee cup with chocolate freckles hoping sugar would fill the hole in my life that was inevitable in it’s arrival.
But I’m not here for my mother. This time my father lies within these walls facing the same blossomed branches on that wide street, the last vistas of his now dead wife.
He wrestled some trees with a car while on holiday in another state and for a while there we thought the trees had won. They hadn’t, they didn’t, and now he recuperates in a room five doors down from where my mother lost and cancer won. But life, not death, is the end goal here this time.
I feel my mother’s three year absence acutely and am five years old again stamping my foot, holding my hands over my ears and wishing the world away but when I remove the hands mortality is still there. It is there in the tremors of my father’s right hand, the circles that cling to below his left eye, the shuffle of his swollen feet and the exhaustion that lines his voice.
I shield him from my sadness and instead sob into two half used lipsticks I find on his chest of drawers when asked to collect some fresh pyjamas from his home. Is there anything more personal than a stubbed out lipstick worn down from constant caressing across one person’s lips?
Gone are her clothes, long cleared out for charity, gone is her jewellery divvied up between her girls, gone is her shoe collection, her handbags, her scarves. I barely still remember her voice three years later. Yet two lipsticks remain and I paint my lips with what once touched hers and inhale the familiar mother smell I thought I had forgotten. I wonder if my father has ever done the same.
For now, he sits locked in a hospital room on quarantine, thanks to Influenza A which has infested the hospital, unable to accept visitors or wander the halls pushing his physio walker to wellness and an exit door out of there. I don’t want him to die, though death is inevitable whether it comes this week, next month, next year or next decade. It will come and I will live, again, in a bubble of grief that felled me for over a year after my first parental loss.
One thing is certain when we are born, we will die and so will those that came before us. If tragedy doesn’t enter your life cycle then you will, at some stage, become an adult orphan. The age on your birth certificate will signify that you have got this, that you can cope, that your life skills will keep your head above the rip tide of grief dragging you down. But you are still an orphan and the yearning will never stop as your own mortality takes the place where your parents once were.
I have, in recent weeks, glimpsed a life without my father and I do not like it. There’s no sweetness in what it represents. So I turn to sugar, an age old frenemie, shoveling down donuts, red frogs and the lollies of my childhood. Familiar drugs that numb me into a carb coma where I can hide from my feelings. But I know you can’t outrun them. I tried with my mother and I have ended up, literally, back where they began.
When you lose a parent you enter a club that those with living parents cannot belong to. You try to tell them what it’s like but they really don’t get it and won’t until they receive their own invitation which is more an order than a request.
Then, just when you forget your membership number you are reminded, if you have your other parent still living, that you may be due for a membership upgrade to a club you really don’t want to belong to. So you run, you hide, you do everything you can to kid yourself that your membership won’t be renewed, that it was all a big mistake and you cling to the idea that your remaining parent will live forever. Anything other than go through that grief again.
For grief begets grief. Loss reminds us of previous loss. When that loss is dual parental then there’s no one left to wipe away your tears, brush your graze, say chin up and send you back out the door to play. Parental loss is inevitable, like sun and moon, winter to spring, but it hits to the inner child core.
Lucky for me my father will go on to survive his car crash and his six weeks in hospital and I hope at least another decade healthy on this earth. Life will continue, spring will turn to summer, my father will regain his strength and vibrancy and grief will be packed back up into that box on the top shelf in the back corner away from the light next to the skinny clothes you hid when you got too fat. Because, you know, sugar.