My step-dad died on Saturday the 11th of May 2019 at 11pm. I put off writing this for a long time, because I honestly had nothing to say. I’m still not sure I have anything of value to share. Death touches everyone. It always feels like the world had stopped spinning for everyone but you. What can I possibly contribute to that narrative? How can I make this one death out of millions matter?
When I first started writing this post, almost a month ago, I started by saying that my step-dad had passed away. I hated the way that sounded though, so I changed it. I feel like people prefer it when I word it like that, “passed away” instead of “died”. It’s softer and less confronting. “Passed away” makes his death sound peaceful and gentle.
My step-dad died of cancer.
He deteriorated over 2 years and we watched as pieces of him got stolen from us. We’d take him to the hospital. Report the loss. The pieces were never found. Sometimes we wondered if anyone was looking.
In the end he was ripped from us. He was dragged away. He did not pass us by. We did not lose him.
I know people mean well when they say things like “we are very sorry for your loss”, but these phrases are passive. We didn’t misplace him. In fact, we fought with everything we had to keep him here. We were warriors in ancient Rome and we had this naive belief that if we won our battles, the cancer would let us go.
I think we prefer to use this kind of language when talking about death because we don’t want to confront the pain. It’s too impossible to understand the magnitude of the suffering; from the pain of the person who has died, to everyone it touches. Death spreads and touches even the people who didn’t know them.
In March I reviewed Markus Zuzak’s Bridge of Clay and I said “I’ve never seen someone decline in illness to the point of death, but I found Zuzak’s imagery captivating as it creates an interesting family portrait; one where death is sitting in the arm-chair with them. This presence defines the family dynamic as much as anything else does, before the trauma and loss of that person even occurs”.
In the months following that post I got to live out everything I’d written about. My step-dad’s illness defined our family long before he was taken from us. Zuzak says:
“She’d started leaving us that morning and death was moving in. He was perched on the curtain rod. Dangling in the sun. Later, he was leaning, close but casual, an arm draped over the fridge; if he was minding the beer he was doing a bloody good job.”
It didn’t matter what we were doing, death was always in the room with us, and he was a house guest whose behaviour we couldn’t control. Life can be random and unpredictable. We cannot control what happens to our loved ones. We can’t always control what happens to ourself. Death is the third person at the dinner table. You cannot control his behaviour. You cannot control what he chooses to do.
You also aren’t helpless. There are things you can control. Serve death one hell of a dinner. Make your favourite dessert. Do the dishes straight away so you don’t have to clean up later. You always have control over yourself.
My step-dad never gave up control of himself. He exerted that control when he asked for his breathing machine to be switched off.
He’s someone I can’t describe here, nor do I want to. He was the kind of person everyone gravitated towards at a party. He always made you laugh but you could never really explain what was funny.
Now I feel like the ground underneath me is fragile. I’m scared to keep moving forwards. It’s like every time I take a step away from him, the ground cracks open a little bit more. One day I’ll fall into it with him.
I’ve still been working on my novel. I’ve nearly finished editing the first draft (after losing it over Christmas) and it’s in much better shape than the draft I lost was. It’s been easy to throw myself back into editing because the novel explores trauma and loss through the lens of science fiction. I can write what I’m feeling. It’s cathartic, and it’s making my narrator more authentic and engaging.
I’m going to finish with a passage from my novel which tries to capture what it’s like to lose someone (no spoilers):
“I wish I could crawl into my brain and cry or blast really loud, angry music while downing shot after shot of tequila. I freeze myself in that position, trapped with Angus, trying to remember him from before but all I can see is the after. I am a caterpillar waiting to turn into a butterfly only, my cocoon is made from fire and hate and I will not come out of this pretty. I imagine I am holding a remote to my life and I freeze the frame and stay there with Angus, rewinding those last few moments again and again, thankful for the digital revolution because now I won’t wear out the film. I can hear cars in the distance and the hum of a speaker, but the film has used up all my memory and I will not delete it just to take on new information. I will not delete him.”
I am reluctant to move forwards without my step-dad, but I have to. He would not have wanted me to follow him.
For Stephen Thomas Hayes
21/12/1959 – 11/05/2019