By Patricia Green
You sat there tethered to the wheelchair by a belt to hold you upright, incapable of standing; your left arm a leg of beef, useless, heavy; half your body gone; unable to comprehend; able only to cry as our eyes met. We could not show our devastation. The bodies you gave us obeyed our brains. We stepped on feet that danced. Our skins were plump with youth and wrinkle free.
We did not lose you to death—not then. We lost you to that terrible struggle for rehabilitation, therapy to exploit what remains of the brain after the implosion—making good the detritus. I watched you seeking absolution despite our love—making tea for mum using only your right hand, insisting on independence to prove yourself a worthy partner and father, trying to shuck off the barnacles of life’s failures.
All our lives you had been the anchor, despite so many setbacks. A young man of twenty-six returned from the war full of confidence in the future. Then, another fight; so many mouths to feed, so many children to educate, the world a whirling uncontrollable cycle of failure and new beginnings, always cheerful, always covering up the hurt. We were like parasites leaching all your energy, your hopes, your dreams as you enveloped us with your unconditional love.
Now, you despised yourself. “Weak as a baby” you spat out, in frustration. We could not show how overwhelmed we were. We were bereft. The initial loss was your stroke robbing us of the person we knew. We hid our pain; its violence would have suffocated you.
In years following, I avoided flaunting my wealth – my total control over my body, my strength, my energy, my mind. I tasted shame for my good fortune. Now, as I age, I dread the annihilation that arrives with the loss of independence. I dread living in a body, refusing jumps that once were easy. Now I tread the steps you left behind. I believe I understand.
It was cruel to ask you to step up to the plate as you had done so many times before and become whole, become your old self. We hid our sorrow behind the smokescreen of jokes and bustling activity.
Your death ten years later was as powerful a blow despite our awareness of your deterioration. The pain was as acute – a piercing, piercing loss. We found the words for grief foreign, heavy in our mouths. We had never practised them with each other; had never explored our feelings with each other. We were always too busy pretending nothing had changed.
Now, not one of us could name the sorrow, name the loss. So used to banal jokes, we smothered our grief in platitudes—“He’s at peace now”; “It’s been a long journey.”—and yarns about a vital, laughing father, forever young in our memory. Grief and love trapped inside each one rendered us mute.