I’m going into the difficult embrace of family life to say goodbye to my father. Our family relationships have been fraught with miscommunications, outbreaks of insanity, and violence. Now it’s all coming to an end and we will have to, I hope, focus on our common humanity.
My mother says, you’ll find him much changed.
I’ve barely spoken to Dad since his cancer swelled and got into his bones. It has taken him over only slowly. The oncologist gives him so and so many months still to live. Meanwhile the effects of the stroke a decade ago slow his walking and, sometimes, his concentration and that makes it harder for his body to cope with the disease. What will kill him, it seems, is one in the string of pneumonias and influenzas that have infested him since he’s been in and out of hospital. An iatrogenic death: caused by the healer.
Dad is so generous and has faithfully tried to be a good father to us. In recent years he has taught himself, probably at my brother’s prompting, to say, awkwardly, “I’m very proud of you.” On the rare occasions when I speak to him over the phone he says, every time, “I love you, pet.” He never used to say this. If I said, “I love you,” he would say, “I love me, too.”
I find these feats of compassion to be particularly moving as his own father leapt from a bridge when Dad was only twelve. His brother was ten and their baby brother three weeks old. Sometimes people’s opportunities to learn parenting skills are so cruelly limited.
On Saturday I will fly out to Frankfurt, and then to Bangkok. This was an innovation we cooked up because I need to turn up healthy and strong and not be one more member of an unwell household ailing and needing care. When I first flew to Berlin the thirty hours’ travel left me trembling and unable to rest, I was swimming uphill, underwater, and though I was sick with hunger trying to eat made me vomit.
The thought of leaving Berlin as the hot weather finally unfolds, and of flying in to Brisbane where winter arrives in inverted commas, fatigues me more than I can say. I have just gotten settled and it’s taken me 18 months. I’m so slow to adapt. Parts of me stay behind, or perhaps travel by the old seaways. I have looked up the forecast for Brisbane and it’s planning to be blue, beautiful one day, perfect the next. Mum says, “There’s a cold front coming, in Tenterfield they’re predicting snow.” The weather channels show rows of cheerful whole suns, and temperatures similar to Berlin in the Spring. So I guess I’ll be wearing the same clobber I’ve been wearing these last sweeter months.
In Berlin now Spanish tourists are beginning to cycle past in the street bare-chested. Girls come out in their fluttering dresses, like pennants; there’s a fashion for unpleasant prints. All the tattoos are on display and we’ve seen the first way too stoned person of the season, sitting on a bench under an invisible sack of cement, their eyes so round and so sore it looked as though someone had drawn in cartoon rings.
My father’s muscle tone is so deteriorated he finds it difficult to swallow. He has to eat sitting forward, with supervision and great care. So I have chosen out for him all the disgusting comestibles he loves, in the softest forms possible: raw meats, and potted intimate organs, all the indelible edibles with which shelves in a German deli seem to me literally to groan. I’m going to make him builders’ marmalade for breakfast, which is Metz – raw pig mince – mashed with raw onion and served on bread. I’m going to tempt him with Sülze, a kind of jelly quivering with the flesh of a pig’s head and sundry choppings of gherkin and carrot.
As well as the pulverised raw meats in glass I have a light jumper, four fresh new blank notebooks and a jar of ink, six books to read, and my sunglasses for crying in public places. I have all my old familiar fears and they’re heavier than anything. I have visions of our plane catching fire in the engine and plummeting out of the sky, extinguishing in the giant ocean, coming to rest in the plastic-loamed sand. I pray that an accident won’t happen. I pray Dad will be there when I get to the house, for there is no one now well enough to come pick me up, and I’m planning to call him and tell him so. It’s hard to say goodbye but it would feel even worse never to say it at all. To say: fare thee well and thank you. I will honour your name. I will never waste the kindness you showed. I have loved all the love.