Creative Writing / Repeat after me: death. And other essays.

#5 The First Lasts, The First Withouts


Before words, before thoughts, there is a feeling. It is from this feeling that everything else comes. Like the small rock that starts the avalanche, it is that feeling that grips you tight and refuses to let you go. If you’re expecting me to recount an exact date or time when my avalanche started, I cannot tell you. Not with certainty. But the facts are not important for this truth. For at the centre of it all is a feeling, a tiny piece of sand that scratches your throat until it becomes a pearl that chokes you.

A few months after my Father became ill my phone rang. Nothing unusual. Just a simple ring. I answered it quickly. The noise of the ring grated on my nerves. It was my brother calling to say, “Hi.” It was not a particularly eventful conversation, yet my heart had to slow down after it. Days later, the phone rang again. My friend asking about life, my Father, my thoughts on the weather. As the phone started to ring, that acceleration came again. My heart, beating in my chest. The next time someone called, it was my Mother who told me my Father was sick. She thought he needed to go to the hospital. The ring of the phone made my hands sweat. The drumming in my chest returned. But I ignored it and drove to my parent’s house, called an ambulance, and waited with my Father. I followed him to the hospital and sat with him in emergency. My phone rang. It was my boyfriend, asking me if everything was all right. The ringer made me jump. And I fumbled trying to get the phone out of my bag.

When my Father was out of hospital, I imagined I heard my phone ring. As the music played, my heart raced and my hands sweated and I began to feel a tight feeling in my chest. Though no one had called. When my Mother called me again to say that my Father was sick and needed to go to the hospital the same beating began. The same stress. For every phone call, my body anticipated grief, loss, trauma. The worst reactions to these phone calls were in the evening, late at night. Somehow in my mind that was when the worst would happen.

The anticipation of death and loss did not start straight away. First, I had to lose hope. And the irony of this is not lost on me, someone whose name is just that, Hope. While there was hope, these feelings of fear were subdued. When the doctor’s told my Father he had a few years to live, I told myself that the doctor’s didn’t know anything. Miracles and all that. However, when the doctor’s told my Father that he had six to twelve months to live… something cracked. Suddenly, it wasn’t in a few years time. I could not shove the idea of losing him to the back of my mind. And the panic and fear of knowing that there is never enough time took over my entire body. I remember going to a friend’s birthday party and crying in the middle of their kitchen, with nothing to prompt such tears. Not even an onion in sight.

Every phone call was the anticipation that my Father had died. And then every phone call was the anticipation that someone I cared about had died. Every phone call was the anticipation of bad news. Of loss. Every event, with or without my Father, was a loss. Something that would never happen again. My Father would never see me get married. Never see me thirtieth birthday. So every day brought new loss, whether it was in real time or for the future that he would be absent from.

When my friend got married, I attended her wedding. I saw her walk down the isle with her father and I hated her. I hated her family, her life, her father. I hated her with every fiber of my being. Only because I was jealous.

The first lasts are hard. Sometimes you don’t even know it will be the last Christmas, the last hug, the last ‘I love you’, until it has passed you. My Father died a few days before Christmas and I thought he would actually make it. But he couldn’t hold on. I often wonder if he thought about getting out of the way, so we could enjoy ourselves. It was his way of thinking: don’t be a burden. I did not know my last Christmas with him would be my last Christmas. Maybe that was better.

The first withouts, though, they are the hardest. And they don’t have to be big events. The first Thursday without my Father felt like I was trapped inside a dying star, waiting to be torn apart. The first withouts didn’t eliminate the anxiety. And with every first January, first February, first March… without my Father, I still panicked every time the phone rang. Nothing lasts forever, and I didn’t know who would leave me next. I panicked every time someone went out, and Goodbye’s, even just to go to the shop for milk, seemed like it could be a last time and I did not want to waste it.

The phantom phone calls that I would imagine, finally stopped. The first withouts have grown uncountable, and somehow in this infinity the pain does not feel so raw. But somehow, with the right conditions, the right absence-of-mind, when the phone rings, I can still feel my heart racing. I can still feel that pearl rising in my throat.

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