Photograph by Reelika Ramot
You always wanted us to be well dressed on big occasions. And we were, Sandra and I, as we came rushing to the hospital to see you. We had been celebrating my birthday in town with friends that evening when the call came from Mum. She was sobbing. Hurry, be quick, she gasped… Something about Dad not being well…
Sandra drove as fast as she could. Although she did stop to buy some crisps at a petrol station. ‘I’m hungry,’ she said very matter-of fact like. We ate them in silence on the way to the hospital, driving through all the red lights. The air was thick with apprehension.
We arrived at the hospital. Our heels reverberated as we hastened through the tedious corridors. We were out of breath by the time we got to the right floor. A nurse with a kind face and rehearsed look of apology greeted us. She wanted to fill us in on what had happened before showing us to your room. She murmured something about giving you oxygen, about you trying to get up from your wheelchair but then…. Her voice sank, became inaudible and the world ground to a halt as she opened the door to your room.
There you were, in your hospital bed. You looked like you always did when you were asleep and I would come and say goodnight to you in the evenings. I took your hand- it was still warm from whatever residue of life lingered on inside of you.
It was hard to imagine you would never open your eyes again. I stared and stared at you. As if my staring might bring you back to life. Your head was tilted to one side and they had put a ridiculous bandage around it. I was hoping you might open your eyes like you used to and give me one of your reassuring side glances - a sign you were still alive. But this time you did not. It was you. But it was not you. I was angry. You cannot go, Dad. Not now. Not now! There is still so much I want to talk to you about. I need your advice more than ever. You cannot go! That was all I could think of then.
Mum was sitting by your side, sobbing uncontrollably. Her grief had transported her to another world. She hadn’t notice us arrive, even as we squeezed her in our arms. She was like a ghost, grasping your right hand, stroking your face, and telling you the most beautiful things about your forty years of love together, wishing no doubt that you would take her with you- wherever you were.
Everyone comes to an end. But nothing prepares us for that end. If we knew our expiry date perhaps we would be better prepared for Death? Before it choked our loved ones and took them away. Before it choked those left behind with brutal grief.
The truth is, I had begun to mourn you five years ago. When that old devil Dementia took control of you, slowly severing you from the old you, robbing us of the strict fatherly figure we were accustomed to. In some ways, you softened up. You even became more playful, surprising us from behind doors or unexpectedly breaking into song during meal times. You were fond of Sinatra’s ‘Young at heart’ or Pavarotti’s ‘Nessun Dorma’. Even your skin became softer. Like a peach.
Sometimes you liked to wander off in the middle of the day, leaving Mum in a state of panic every time you disappeared. Once you invited yourself round to the new neighbours. I think you told them there were ‘bad people’ coming to get you and would they terribly mind hiding you- just for a short while? They were very polite about it. You were drinking coffee, chatting away to them when I came to find you. When you saw me, your face lit up. ‘Ah, this is my daughter! She’s an actress!’ That was the first time you had ever introduced me so. It made me happy. I smiled politely at them. Thanked them. They smiled back politely. We all nodded politely in awkward silence. And I took you back home.
That evening Mum held your hand and wouldn’t let go. They were coming to get me, you told her, like a teenager who’s just been caught trying to sneak out in the middle of the night. No-one is coming to get you, my love. This is your house- this is the house you had built for us, remember? We have had some happy years in here. And you are safe in it. I want to go home, you told her. But this is your home, Mum would remind you, relentlessly. This is where we brought up our children. Do you remember your children? Look, here are pictures; this is your eldest daughter, Sandra, then Deborah, then Robert, here is Lavinia and look, here is Wilfred…Ah yes, you said, and smiled. We have beautiful children, don’t we? Yes, my love, said Mum, as she leafed through the family album with you.
Then Parkinsons made his way in too, like some unwanted guest feeling too much at home too soon, causing you to tremble, interrupting your speech patterns and driving Mum up the wall. For a while, she was in denial. We all grudgingly learnt to accommodate the intruder, as it tightened its stranglehold on you. We had no other choice. Nurses came and went, mornings and evenings. You feared them. To a certain extent, they feared you too- especially when you battled with them. You just wanted them to leave you alone.
I think you often pretended to recognize us when we came to see you. ‘Ah, good afternoon!’ you would greet us formally, with a twinkle in your eye which suggested you weren’t too sure who we were but were eager to uphold social graces nevertheless. Over time, that twinkle vanished and you became sadder. You no longer lifted your eyes to greet us. A cloudy film settled over your gaze and you spent whole afternoons staring into Nothingness- when you weren’t sleeping. Your skeletal frame sunk deeper and deeper into your armchair which eventually became an extended part of you.
In such moments I desperately wanted to hear you recount – just one last time!- the stories of your childhood in India where you fled to from Salonica, just before the Nazis invaded Greece. I wanted to hear about that time you cut the beard off that priest who was taking his afternoon nap under a tree or that time you sprayed a policeman with water, from behind a wall. I wanted to hear about your Cambridge days, what you got up to during the Cold War years- you were always so secretive about it…The umbilical cord of memories had atrophied over time, leaving me – leaving us - temporarily suspended in a No-Man’s land of Selfhood.
When the day came for us to choose the outfit you would wear for your burial, we made sure you were well dressed. We settled for your favourite outfit- the one you always wore on big occasions. Like Christmas and birthdays. The red checkered jacket, black trousers and your black bow-tie, with your polished shoes that still looked like new because you always took such good care of your things.
I retrieved the jacket from your cupboard, checked the pockets –just in case- and found a little note, neatly folded. ‘Dear Love,’ it began. It was a draft of a Valentine’s note to Mum; the hand-writing was shaky, the sentences incomplete. Till the very end, you maintained your need for perfection and had wanted to practice your hand writing before penning down your thoughts in a Valentine’s card- a tradition you upheld religiously during your forty years of marriage. It was the 14th of February that day. Mum has kept it in her purse ever since.
Born in London, Lavinia grew up in the UK, Switzerland, Germany and France. After obtaining her Bachelor's degree in German and Politics from Nottingham University, she went to drama school in Paris, then New York. She has acted in several plays and is the author of 'Célébrité: Mode d'Emploi', which was performed at the Théâtre de la Cité Bleu, in Geneva, 2008 and 'The Saint Factory', performed at the English Theatre in Berlin, in 2013. She recently wrote and directed her first short movie 'What Happened to Manfred', which is part of the official 2016 selection at the Stone Fair International Film festival, Romania.