This story is by Shane Pinnegar and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
By Shane Pinnegar
“David Thomas Cooper… sixty-six and a half years old and as fit as fiddle when you’d had the aneurysm,” I said quietly to no-one in particular.
There was only Dad and I in the room, me sitting next to his bed, gently holding the old man’s hand, searching his face deeply for any sign of cognisance, as I’d done hundreds of times before. The room was silent and still, apart from the regular, reassuring beep of the heart monitor.
It was seven years after that tragic day, and there’d been no further sign of Dad.
No sign of the man who had raised me, helped me with my schoolwork, coached my teenage footy team, the Noranda Lions. No sign of the man who gave me my first cheeky sips of beer at a timid fifteen, taught me to be honest, polite and treat girls with respect. No sign of the man who had been my rock after Mum died, despite dealing with his own grief.
“You’d never have admitted you’d been depressed then, would you Dad? But we both had. Mum left a huge hole in our lives – I don’t think we ever managed to fill it,” I sighed. “I wasn’t able to deal with my own emotions, much less anyone else’s, Dad – I’m sorry. Thanks – for stepping up, for gently guiding me through that horrible couple of years, all the while suffering in silence yourself. I’m sorry I couldn’t have been there more for you.”
I winced as I recalled my downward spiral thirty years ago. First had come drinking and drugs, then fighting, then school suspensions and blowing my chance at university.
“But through it all, Dad, you were there for me – remember my nineteenth birthday party at the footy club? I always knew that was more about me getting back on the rails than it was about a birthday.
“You’d got me the job with Hans. I never did find out why he owed you a favour. Something dodgy, no doubt – neither of you would ever tell me, no matter how many times I asked. ‘Don’t you worry about it, my boy,’ you’d say, your jaw tightenening.
“I took to the carpentry just like you’d known I would,” I smiled, remembering all the pieces of furniture I’d made for Dad over the years. “You’d keep some, flog some to your mates’ mates, or just give them away to friends at the pub. I always appreciated how proud you were of my work, Dad. Thanks…”
I sighed and sat in silence a while longer.
“The kids send their love,” I smiled proudly. “Warwick is still in Canada, doing what 23-year-olds do and skiing his way through the female population. I swear he only emails me sometimes to brag about his conquests. I don’t think I was that bad, was I Dad?
“Julia and Mike are having a great time on their honeymoon – they’re in Spain this week. Ahhh Dad, I wish you could’ve been at the wedding – even though you’d have thought it ridiculously over the top… it probably was, actually. But you’d have been so proud of her.”
Looking at Dad was always like looking at an older mirror-image of myself – everyone had said so ever since I was ten years old. Once we were older I could see all the pub lunches together, all the footy games cheering for their beloved Royals, and all the debriefs in the member’s bar after the games, every time I looked at him.
I wouldn’t change it for quids.
“You’ve been the best mate I ever had, Dad.” I sniffed, my eyes welling up.
“It’s been so hard…” I croaked, an errant tear escaping one eye and trickling down my cheek. I’d been visiting Dad every week since he came into hospital, but there’d been no signs that he knew I was there, not once. Still, I spoke to him, told him about my week, read out the footy results, reminded him of the good times we’d shared, and even confessed some long-ago sins.
Still there’d been no signs from Dad other than the steady blip of the heart monitor. The machine had become such a part of Dad, such a part of my weekly visits for eleven years, that it almost felt like family as well.
Hanging over my head for years was the choice I had to make: whether to turn the life support off, or let what was left of Dad continue with no quality of life, and the doctors had been pressuring me more and more over the past few months.
“It’s horrendous seeing you like this, with no chance of recovery – but at least you’re here, alive, just in case of that one in a zillion chance…
“But is that enough? The doctors all say no.”
So, it’s down to me, this impossible choice, and it’s down to me to deal with the guilt, either way.
I couldn’t bare the thought of Dad being a vegetable, unable to do or say or see anything, and if there was next-to-no chance he’d ever return to his former self…
Still, I hadn’t been able to bring myself to let go yet. I’d barely slept all month agonising over the decision. Almost every day I’d been in here talking to Dad, looking for a sign, holding some kind of vigil, hoping to be served an answer on a plate, always leaving more confused, more tearful.
Reflecting on our lives together, so intertwined, dredging up all these memories, suddenly a wave of grief crashed over me. It was horrible and confronting, yet cathartic and a relief. Finally, I knew what I had to do, even though it rocked me to the core of my being: I knew the time had come.
Again tears welled up in my eyes, and I squeezed the old man’s hand tightly, my shoulders shaking as I wept.
I stood shakily and leant forward, kissing Dad’s forehead, and whispered, choking on the words, “goodbye, Daddy.”
A tear fell from my cheek onto Dad’s as I hugged him, then another as I stood up, and as I turned and left the room, sobbing loudly, I missed the slightest flicker of one eyelid, and then another.
“It’s time,” I told the doctor, tears pouring down my face and my shoulders shaking.
She nodded compassionately and reached a hand to clasp mine in a comforting gesture which only made me cry harder.
I gently but firmly pulled my hand from the doctor’s grip, signed a shaky signature on her form, allowing her to turn the machines off and let Dad pass, then turned without a word and walked to the elevator. She said something, but I wasn’t listening to her or to the noise of nurses running past, I just got in the lift, barely seeing the numbers on the buttons through my tears, my whole body still shaking with sadness.
I left the hospital and walked numbly towards the car park in a daze. My eyes filled with tears every time I wiped them, so I just gave up wiping them, plodding one foot in front of the other, bawling like a child wrenched from its mother’s bosom.
The sun was setting now – I must have been in with Dad for hours – and in the twilight, my eyes full of tears and my mood so disconsolate that everything around me was forgotten, ignored, I stepped onto the road without looking either way, right into the path of a taxi which braked too little too late to miss me.
That was seven years ago, and I’d been in a coma ever since.
I can hear what’s happening, but I have no control over my body – I can’t move a muscle, can’t communicate, but all the while my mind has screamed to them –
I’d learnt that as I entered the elevator that fateful day, the alarms had rung as Dad’s eyes opened and his vital signs changed for the first time in seven years.
As I’d left the hospital a bevy of nurses and the doctor were scrambling in the room attending to Dad, removing the breathing apparatus from his mouth and checking his vital signs.
And as my head hit the hard tarmac, Dad had croaked wearily, his voice barely a dry whisper, “where’s my boy?”
And now he was clutching my hand, facing the same impossible choice I had faced.
I never would have made the decision to let him go had I known he was still in there, but there’s no way he could have told me, just as there’s no way I can let him know I’m still here.
It’s a special kind of torture, enough to drive you mad.
And I can tell from my Dad’s increasing visits, his words, his voice cracking with emotion, his tears splashing onto my hand more frequently… he’s just about ready to make the same choice I made.