The Hardest Day Of My Life

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Waking up from a night of restlessness scattered with vivid dreams of wanting to be held and reassured that it was all ok, I felt completely exhausted and simultaneously over-stimulated. I knew that the day ahead was going to be difficult, but it hadn’t yet occurred to me that it was going to be my most difficult. It just hadn’t…

Seven days earlier I was working through my day, moving through my challenges and thinking about my next steps in life. I had expectations about how my day was going to unfold. Things seemed different though. I didn’t know what it was. It was like the wind had started blowing in a direction it had never done before. It’s as if there was moisture in the air, electricity and dark clouds. I don’t know what it was but something wasn’t normal. So I continued with the day anyway, expecting no different. Maybe it was just in my head.

Then I got the phone call that changed everything. The phone call that told me exactly what it was about the weather that was different. I missed a call from the family doctor followed by a message saying, “Please call Dr B back.” Before I got a chance to do so, mum called and I answered.

Mum’s voice broke as she asked me, “Where are you?”
I knew. I fucking knew what had happened, but it needed to be said anyway. “It’s your father…”

“What is it, mum? What happened?” I knew the answer the moment I heard her voice. I heard her say it before she said it.

“He’s dead.” She cried and my ears rang for 3 seconds as if I was coming to.

I felt the adrenaline force its way through my veins in only a few seconds and then the following 7 days moved by in a blur. It was as if it was all one memory being whisked into a single moment. A moment that lasted a lifetime but also feels like a lifetime ago.

Nothing was ever going to be the same. Life is like that and I teach this, but this time it was personal. Grief is adjusting to immediate and permanent change. That’s all it is. That is all of what it is. That doesn’t mean it's a small thing. I knew that I was dealing with change. I knew that adjusting, adapting and moving with what had happened was the only way to survive the experience. It was still difficult to do though. Because it was surreal. Actually, it was real. It just seemed surreal.

From the moment I found out I was filled with questions. I couldn’t keep up with them all and I didn’t know what to do about them so I let them pass. I knew that if they still needed to be answered they would come up again. Instead, I faced what had happened but I couldn’t face my Dad. I didn’t want to see him the way he had fallen to rest. I didn’t want to see him the way he was in the last moments of his breath. I knew that if I had I would’ve empathically experienced what he had and that scared me.

And then the moment I thought I’d never witness — the moment the mortuaries wheeled Dad’s body in a bag out of his home. As I watched them wheel Dad’s body away I felt myself sink as if they were taking my Dad away from me. He was already gone, but it still felt that way. For most of my life, Dad and I would joke about how we were outnumbered by the women in our family — it was just him and me. As they pushed him into the back of the hearse I realised it's not that way anymore. Now, it was just me. I suppose he believed I’d be ok. Maybe he was right.

We were whisked away to the funeral home to plan the day we lay his body to rest. When we weren’t organising, we were silent. Searching for an anchor in any moment to gain a sense of reality. Otherwise, we were just drifting from one thought to another with no apparent connection between any of them other than, “What the fuck just happened?” We agreed on plans, made decisions and spent the rest of that day in sombre silence.

The day after, we ventured to find a resting place for Dad in the same cemetery as our sister. A place that meant something to him. That held some sense of value. It turns out there were more levels of depth to his resting place than we thought. (The section he rests in is connected with his home country Greece and his lot number is 72 which was the house number of our family home up until 2 years before his death).

The time between finding his resting place and driving to the funeral was bookended with hours laying in bed, trying to sleep and filled with surfacing memories of interactions with Dad. From arguments to sacred moments of paternal love. They all crept into the mind, prying open the heart and making sure it stayed open. It seemed like it was the only way to keep him alive for now.

Next thing I know, we’re pulling up to the front of the church where Dad was waiting for us in the hearse, with a quilt of flowers resting on his coffin. There was a sea of people standing on the steps of the church, on the street, across the road and surrounding the hearse. I saw bodies but not faces. I was wearing the same suit I wore at my wedding and Dad was wearing the same suit he wore at my wedding. It was the last time we wore suits together. As I got out of the car, my heart sank, my eyes swelled and my lungs emptied. I knew what was to come and didn’t want it to happen as if I had some kind of choice.

I had faces watching, waiting for Dad to be carried into the church. The funeral director was speaking to me, giving me instructions but it all seemed to wash over me. I heard what I needed and then felt the panic kick-in. I stepped away to the car to drink some water and try to compose myself. My wife followed me to help me get my shit together long enough to not melt down. Mum came over to help. I was scared to do what was necessary. The thought running through my mind? “This isn’t right. I’m not meant to be burying my Dad yet.”

I make my way back to the hearse where Dad was patiently waiting for me. Five others were ready to carry him with me. And so we did. As we took the weight of Dad I instantly felt the weight of what was happening. At that moment it became real. We were saying goodbye to Dad and I didn’t want to. I didn’t want him to go. But it was too late.

As we carried Dad down the aisle of the church, people were weeping, sniffling and sobbing. I couldn’t look at the faces of anyone. I could only look down at my feet and walk.

Once Dad was placed at the altar, the priest went on to commence the ceremony while I did what I could to keep myself from experiencing complete overwhelm. I could hear the priest reading Dad’s eulogy but wasn’t listening. My wife held my hand and my sister wrapped her arm around me. Then after what felt like hours, the priest had finished and I along with the other pall-bearers were called to carry Dad back through the church to the hearse.

We stood by Dad while we waited for the priest to prepare himself to lead Dad out of the church. I stood facing the sea of faces only able to feel the wood of the coffin under my fingertips as my wife, sisters and mother looked on. Then the priest stood before us, started his prayer and led the way towards the doors of the church. We lifted Dad once more and carried him through the centre of the church, his feet first.

While carrying Dad past the first row, I felt the hand of my wife brush the inside of mine for a just moment of sanctity from what I was experiencing. Others wept and reached out to touch Dad’s coffin as we followed the priest out of the church and down the front steps. Once Dad was put into the back of the hearse we were swarmed by people offering condolences. It seemed like I was having the most vivid dream yet.

We piled into the car and went for one last drive with Dad. When we arrived at his resting place at the top of the hill, there was no mistaking where we were meant to be and what we were there for.

We were to carry Dad one last time. This time I wasn’t carrying him from the feet but from his shoulder. We slid Dad out of the back of the hearse and took his weight. It was heavier on this end. This time it felt like it was the heaviest part of the day. We carried Dad along the grass towards where my wife, sisters and mother were waiting, along with the rest of the attendees. As we got closer I felt my grip tighten like I didn’t want to let go.

The grave was open. Dad was laid on the rail across the top of the grave. As I stood by my wife and my family, the priest said one more prayer. We stood there watching over Dad knowing what was about to happen. In just a moment it was all going to come to an end. There’s no preparing for this moment. It just happens.

The funeral director released the rail lock from under Dad’s coffin as the priest finishes his prayer. Dad begins his descent slowly as the priest finishes by pouring red wine, olive oil and then soil onto Dad’s coffin. The cemetery is quiet, the birds stop their singing and the air is still. I watch as Dad continues his descent under his quilt of flowers.

I walked over to the bucket of soil filled the spade and sprinkled it over Dad as I looked down to where he was laying to rest. The words immediately swept over me, “Bye Dad. I love you.” My heart burst open, my eyes filled and all I could do is fall into the arms of my wife and weep. This is it. This is the moment I knew was coming. The moment I knew things would change forever. It was the final goodbye to Dad.

The sound of Wild World by Cat Stevens broke the silence. It was a song that Dad would sing whenever it came on. It’s like he saw the world as wild but carried an optimism about how you could get through it. He knew that by showing others love, you’d be ok. He knew people were dying to be loved and even if you couldn’t speak the language, love was understood everywhere. It’s what got him through his life.

This time I knew he had to go. It was time for him to go, I didn’t want him to but he did. We were surrounded by people who had been affected by Dad in some way. So much so they wanted to stand by and witness the lowering of his body to its final resting place. It was the final goodbye and it was the hardest day of my life. From that moment on, Dad was gone. There was no going back, no returning to how things used to be. It was immediate and permanent change.

The only thing left to do was to put the pieces of life back together. Alone and as a family. Nothing else in the world mattered at that point. We had all been loved by Dad. I had the privilege of being loved by my Dad no matter what I did in my life. He didn’t condition his love even when it looked like he did. It’s a cliche but his weapon of choice was love. He didn’t know how to fight any other way. And it worked. It was disarming every time. No matter how much anger Dad received from others he still showed a loyal love. He made it really easy to get frustrated at him but hard to hate him.

And then there were his hugs. The tight grip that made the world melt away for just a few seconds. All things in the world ceased to exist just by that one hug. He used the act of holding on to help you let go. It worked every time. Now, no more hugs from Dad. Not the way I used to get them anyway.

Dad, you taught me a world of lessons. You did it directly at times but mostly through letting me observe, absorb and live. I fell a lot, I got hurt, I got beaten and bruised and I failed at a lot of things. One thing stayed there the whole time - it was your love. I knew that no matter what life threw at me, no matter how hard life threw it at me and no matter how willing I was to give up, you would always love me. What’s more than that, you loved me for being me. You loved me because I wasn’t like you. You loved me because at times I am like you. You loved me and that’s all that ever mattered. That’s all I could ever ask from you. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s been the greatest gift because it can never be taken away from me. I know this because even though you’re gone I can still feel your love. It fills me with warmth and light. It’s a gift that I’m honoured to have received.

Ask me what my Dad was like and I’ll tell you that he was special because he loved me. He loved me so much that even in death his love can be felt. I realised this on that day. The hardest day of my life. The day I felt my Dad’s love.

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