A Simple Truth
His eyes suddenly had a clarity I’d not seen in more years than I could remember, and I swear that the pale lips drew back in something of a smile, as he raised his withered hand before answering
A Simple Truth
The waxen, prepared flesh that was the death mask borne by the corpse of my father was shockingly unfamiliar. This awful thing wasn’t like any memory of him that I had, but more a forgotten exhibit at some waxworks museum that had been dragged out for me to look upon. Even in this chapel of rest, surrounded by the symbols of a faith that had meant so much to him, I could find no comfort.
The only thoughts that ran through my mind were the vivid memories of our final encounter and the life that had gone on before it. His final words would ring forever in my ears and bring a rueful tear to my eye. He had lived a lie all of his life and we’d fallen for it but I couldn’t hate him for his belief.
I wish that I could say I was religious, but I can’t. It seems that deities the world over have one thing in common. Indifference! Life is whatever you make of it, yourself, and all of us are guilty of being deliberately uninterested in others most of the time. We have so little of that precious gift of life, perhaps three score years and ten. Do we have the time to really care? Does God?
God! With amusement, I recalled the Sunday-school teacher who’d, to my poor Mother’s shame, excluded me from classes because my questions were too ‘near-the-knuckle’ for her. What had she proclaimed, again? Oh, yes. He lives, he loves, and he listens. I didn’t believe it.
Members of my family dropped like flies throughout my childhood. Aunts and uncles disappeared. To heaven, mum said, firm in her catholic convictions. I wanted to believe her, but it never seemed to me that this god was either fair or just. Too busy ever to consider the effect of his actions on me, it seemed, and my questions never really got answered. Forgive my skepticism.
Years passed, and I had children of my own. Why is it that your love for your own kids exceeds the love you feel for your family? Dad was such a distant figure, and we never paid much mind to one another, really. No news was good news, that’s how we were. Then came the day of the fateful call, and I rushed to his bedside.
I watched, silent and guilty, as life crept, inexorably, from my father’s weary body. Demons haunted every laboured breath that his failing lungs gasped with such determination. There was so very much of life that he had still to live. We had so many broken bridges to repair, yet he’d run out of time. Surely no god would ordain that it should be this way?
My mind was filled with the words of an old Maori poem, ‘Ran Tanapiri’, written three thousand years before Christianity saw the light of day. Such powerful words ‘You are your own devil, you are your own god. You fashioned the steps that your footsteps have trod.’ He’d done always what he thought was right, knowing that it might cause pain, and he was never an affectionate man.
I stood at the foot of his hospital bed, simply not knowing what to feel. His once ruddy complexion had given way to a sickly pallor that made his face almost blend with the white of the bedsheet, were it not for the insistent Grey stubble around his weak chin. Even now, he seemed aloof in his suffering. I should have wept, but I couldn’t
Those Grey eyes, pleading somehow when they had briefly opened, had been shocking in their intensity. Not the shock of retribution. No. The shock of realization that even now, he wanted nothing from me, but to know that I was there. In the face of death, he still couldn’t put into words, any more than I, the unsaid thoughts that had been building up for years. It was as if there just wasn’t anything to say.
My feet were begging me to listen to their pleas for flight, but I couldn’t. Experiences, stacked up like floodwaters behind a giant dam, were clamoring for long-overdue release. Driven by this inexplicable need to express myself to him before the chance was taken forever, I could not move. Frozen in this unwelcome certainty, I waited for him to wake.
He hadn’t been a bad father, just an ordinary working man, that was all. So many mouths to feed, and such a low-paid job. To be a good provider had meant that he couldn’t really be a dad, but with five siblings to shepherd, which eldest child would have found time to notice?
All at once, I thought I saw a figure, at the corner of my eye, and almost cried out. My mother stood, her eyes lovingly and radiantly fixed on his restless form. Barely five feet tall, her deep olive-colored skin making her look, for all the world, like the gypsy woman she’d so loved to have been. The tight, jet-black curls of that familiar hair around that ever smiling face.
My heart leapt, in joy and dread. She’d died more than thirty years before! A heart attack brought on by severe bronchitis. My whole body shook, as I shivered uncontrollably, not knowing if what I felt was fear or elation.
Tears welled up in my disbelieving eyes, and she slowly vanished behind a veil of salty water. When I shook my head to clear my eyes, she was gone. How many things came rushing to my mind then? Scolding and hugs. Lying prone and screaming with the pain of my swollen appendix, while she mopped my sweating young brow with a damp cloth.
Laying, torn and broken in the ambulance, years later after the accident, and her wanting to hit me in her rage and frustration, despite my pain. Sitting in front of the roaring coal-fire, cross-legged, at her feet, while she stroked your hair. She fed us, fought for us, forced us to learn. Did his job as well as her own, but never once complained that it was beyond her.
Dad simply never noticed that his kids had grown up big and strong without him, until it was way too late. None of us had ever really managed to put our finger on the way we felt. Mum was everywhere in our lives, a fiercely protective shield that he couldn’t penetrate. Then, without warning, she was gone, never to see any of her grandchildren. God, she would have spoiled them rotten.
There was a groan from the bed, and he at last began to stir. Would there be time to put into words the feelings of a lifetime left unshared? He had a right to know what he’d chosen to miss and yet I couldn’t help but ask myself if he really would care at all. His children hadn’t wanted to feel the barbs of his self-recrimination One-by-one; they’d left to make their own way in the world.
“Son....”, came the sudden, weak word from the bed which had me red-faced with shame. “I’m really glad to see you...”, he continued, very faintly.
“It’s been so long dad, and I have so much to say,” I faltered, in reply, concerned that his breathing was even more strained, “we’ve never had the best of relationships. Perhaps it’s time for being honest with each other.”
His eyes suddenly had a clarity I’d not seen in more years than I could remember, and I swear that the pale lips drew back in something of a smile, as he raised his withered hand before answering.
“Honest about what, son? What do you think you can tell me that I don’t already know? All my kids are doing fine without me, and that’s all I ever wanted.” His breath was rattling through ruined lungs, but his tone was final.
I looked hard into that face, looking for a sign, but saw none. In exasperation I almost shouted,
“What about love dad? Was it so hard to show us all how much you cared? You pushed us away. Made us leave. Why did you always seem so distant?”
“Think about it, son. You all finished up independent because of that, willing to fight your own battles in life. I did; do care about you all, in my own way, but you needed to stand by yourselves. I did the right thing.”
His hand reached for mine. I, too, have kids, and though I love them dearly, one day I will have to let them go. His eyes fixed on mine as he continued, with the last words I ever heard him say.
He died moments later and I grieved as much as I had on finding my mother dead in her bed twenty years earlier. He was so right, if you look deep inside yourself and ask what matters most in the world. This is what he said.
“Life is the most precious gift of all and everything else is a bonus. Children are all we can truly hope to leave behind and they need to know the one truth that everybody tries to hide from. Love is truly nothing more than a lesser degree of indifference.”