An open letter to my Father

Subject: An open letter to my Father
From: Your only Daughter
Date: 18 Sep 2018

Dear Dad,

I have spent the best part of my life, the last 13 years to be exact, afraid. Afraid of receiving a phone call, a text message, of walking into work and finding out from a stranger (again) or scroll on my Facebook news feed and see a post alerting me to you having had another heart attack, or worse, your death. I couldn’t see a missed call from you on my phone screen without having a fully-fledged panic attack, no matter where I was or who I was with. It got to the point that anyone even mentioning your name sent my heart into overdrive. My mental and physical health, as I’m sure you are aware, have suffered greatly. I spent my teen and early adult years suffering with depression and anxiety, something that only during last year I had begun to recover from.

On October 11th of last year my worst fear came true. I woke up, on the other side of the world, to messages from two complete strangers telling me to call them as soon as possible and that it was concerning you. It was 6am in Peru, which meant it was midnight here. I was in a total panic; neither of these people were answering their phones and I couldn’t get onto you either. I eventually got onto Mum and asked her to call you, your brother, your sister in law, anyone. No one answered, and I was forced to wait, helplessly, for 8 hours before I received any word. I kept telling myself (as I always have) that I was worrying for nothing and that you were fine. I kept scrolling through your Facebook to see your recent posts, calculating just how long ago they were posted, and waiting, hopeful, for you to become active on messenger. You didn’t.

They didn’t tell me just how bad it was at first. They didn’t want me to come running to you, as I always have, and at the expense of my holiday, if you were going to be okay. But you weren’t. The doctor gave me five days to come home to say goodbye. It took me three. Three of the longest days of my life. At one stage they had overbooked my flight and wouldn’t let me board the plane and I’ve never felt such panic. Crying hysterically in Cuzco airport with flight attendants who spoke little to no English trying their best to get me onto a new flight, and strangers trying to console me, praying for me. Praying for you. It’s not an experience I would wish on my worst enemy.

I made it home. We went directly from Tullamarine to Footscray hospital where you were in a coma in the ICU. You had pneumonia, a fever, and gout in your foot. I’ll never forget the way you looked. Your face and hands and feet were so swollen and waxy, you looked like maybe you could pop. You had tubes and wires everywhere; the most distressing was the tube down your throat allowing you to breathe. Your skin was dry and flaky and had a yellow undertone, and you were cold to the touch. You kept moving your head around, scrunching up your face in pain and discomfort. It broke my heart to see you like that. At one stage you opened your eyes and looked directly at me, but you weren’t seeing. I wasn’t sure there was anyone in there. It haunts me still now. I held your hand willing so desperately for you to squeeze mine back. I would have given anything.

It was only then that I found out exactly what had happened to you. You were singing at a muso night and after walking off the stage had suffered a major heart attack and collapsed. You had no oxygen to your brain for at least 20 minutes whilst strangers performed CPR on you until the paramedics arrived. Did you know that the brain starts to die from no oxygen after 1 minute? After 3 minutes, lasting, extensive brain damage is highly likely. After 5 minutes death becomes imminent. At 10 minutes, a coma and lasting brain damage are inevitable, and at 15 minutes, survival becomes nearly impossible. You were out for 20 minutes Dad. TWENTY. No one expected you to wake up, and as I sat there next to you that night in the hospital I found myself wondering what would happen if you did. Would you be able to speak? Would you be able to use your arms or legs, or both? Would you need care for the rest of your life? I didn’t dare to get my own hopes up that you would make a full recovery, and the fact that you woke up the very next day, virtually unscathed, is nothing short of a miracle. I don’t think you fully comprehend how lucky you are. Perhaps the fact that you’ve survived six heart attacks has given you an arrogance. A feeling or belief of invincibility. I can understand why you may feel this way for a time, but logic comes to reason that nothing on this earth lasts forever, especially something as fragile as human life. Everyone dies, Dad.

Over the years I have heard you defend yourself on various occasions, for various reasons. “What was I supposed to do? I’m sick!” I don’t deny you your defence. You are very ill and have been for a long time. Which is why I find it so difficult to watch you make these claims, use this as an excuse for why you’ve behaved the way you do, and yet do nothing to help yourself. Your very first heart attack, I know at the time you didn’t know what was happening to you, but you wouldn’t even let mum call you an ambulance. Ironically enough we had only been at the hospital (for me) hours before. Do you remember what you’d had for dinner that night? I do. KFC and McDonalds. One right after the other. Now obviously by then the damage to your heart was already done, but you cannot sit there and tell me that your eating habits have had no impact.

With every new heart attack, I have found it increasingly difficult to watch you consistently eat junk food, drink sugar-filled drinks, and on the odd occasion, smoke cigarettes. “Did you know that it can take just one cigarette to cause a heart attack?” you said to your brother as you lit one up, not too long after your first episode. This total disregard for your health was extremely distressing for me to be around. It only added to my fear of your death. Often, I think about what it would mean to lose you. You would never meet my future partner or walk me down the aisle on my wedding day. Your grandkids would never know you, as I never knew your father. Then there are the little things. Not being able to call you up for a chat, or talk about boys, music, work, women, and all of that stuff I need to talk to my dad about. I would never be able to steal the foam from your cappuccino, or again sing along with you in the car, or continue my ruse of not liking Brussel sprouts every time you tried to make me eat them, and when I get sad, never again would I feel your comforting arms around me, making me feel hopeful as only my father can. “Everything’s going to be okay George girl”. Even at such a young age I was aware of how limited our time together was, and so I would cherish every moment. I held on to every photograph, every memory of you singing as you cooked, cleaned, drove, worked on your bikes and your god forsaken cars. When you were on stage I beamed with pride. That’s MY Dad up there. You were my entire world, Dad.

For most of my life I thought I was yours too. But I was wrong. How hard it was for me to watch you self-destruct. I mean what else could it have been, not looking after yourself when even you would say that you were sick? Surely there comes a time (maybe after heart attack number 2 or 3?) where you finally get the wake-up call and stop living in denial. I have friends whose parents weren’t so lucky. Do you not remember how hard it was for you to watch your own father suffer? How could you not take better care of yourself, if not for your own sake, for ours? Your children and family. Because that would be a selfless act of love, and isn’t that what parents are supposed to do for their children? Love them selflessly? But that’s not who you are, I know that now. I have begged and pleaded with you endlessly. I’ve tried to cook for you, clean for you, take care of you, because I’ve loved you so much. And after everything that has happened since you woke up, I am honestly questioning whether you have every really loved me at all. At least, in the way I needed you to.

October 17th, 2017 was the happiest day of my life. It didn’t start out quite like that. I arrived at the hospital not knowing what to expect, not knowing if I’d have to say goodbye to you. I hadn’t been by your side for very long, and I had so much to say to you, but I just wasn’t sure how. I found myself reassuring you, as you have for me so many times before. “Everything’s going to be okay Dad, alright?” You moved your head. Was that deliberate? I didn’t want to believe. I repeated myself, and you nodded again. I began to cry. The nurses removed the tube from your throat as you regained consciousness. You said hello. You made a joke. I laughed, and I cried. Nothing could’ve torn me down that day.

It was a few more days before you woke up again. Of course, you couldn’t remember much. You would ask the same questions over and over, but eventually you would say “Oh, I’ve asked that already, haven’t I?”. The doctors told us to prepare for your recovery to be slow and steady, and you would likely be in hospital for months. But you progressed quickly, and it was so uplifting to watch you improve. I tried to be there for you as often as I could. I took unpaid leave off from work and bought you clothes and underwear and anything else you needed. It didn’t mean anything to me that I was travelling for over an hour every day just to sit with you. I called up the water, gas, and electrical companies to put your accounts on hold, and even went down to your house to pack all of your things (for you were supposed to be in hospital for a while). But to my surprise, when I got there everything had already been packed away. I found myself trying to take care of my Father in the only ways I could, but someone else was doing it first. Someone whom I had never met, whom you had only known less than a year at the time, was taking away from me everything I could do for you. I had never in my life felt more rejected, helpless, and undermined. This person’s praise was sung loudly, and had they shown any care towards you or yours other than that which made them look good, I might have been a little more accepting. But not once did this person ever introduce themselves to me (An insensitive and assertive “Are you here to see Geoff?” as I walked through the doors of the ICU doesn’t quite cut it). Not once did they offer their condolences, or ask if I, or any of your family, were okay. Instead, we were harassed and abused for making decisions that were in your best interest and yours only. They lied about a relationship to get in to see you, and never left your side, not even to let you rest and recover, (once they even made the doctor wake you up just to say good morning over the phone), and their judgement was seriously brought into question when they brought you chips and gravy in the cardiac ward for lunch without even being asked. You yourself said it was too much.

A few weeks in, my patience growing ever thinner as I tried so desperately not to burden you with my feelings towards this person and the situation, I found I couldn’t hold back any longer and I told you how I upset I was. I’m not sure you actually listened, but you replied with “This is their way of being able to look after their father who died of a heart attack years ago”. I was gobsmacked. What about me, Dad? Here I am right now, trying to look after you, MY father, who is in hospital, having suffered a major heart attack and was awaiting a triple bypass. Did you honestly expect me to step aside because a complete stranger to me needs this second chance? I cannot even begin to tell you how much this hurt. Did my feelings not matter to you? Did I not matter to you? I flew 15 746 kilometres to be with you Dad, and do you know what you said to me? I remember clear as day. You said “Oh, well the doctors over exaggerated”. I felt like you’d slapped me in the face. It didn’t matter to me that my 6 weeks, once in a lifetime trip was cut short 10 days in, or that I am now $8000 in debt (Travel insurance doesn’t cover your Pre-existing condition, you see) All that mattered was that you were okay. I had sacrificed a lot to be there with you Dad. But you didn’t care.

Despite the pain it was causing me, I stuck by your side. You eventually moved back home, I cleaned and cooked for you at any chance I got (I couldn’t afford to take any more leave from work, and you lived over an hour and a half away from me). After a week or two I found coke in your fridge, and ice cream and meat pies in your freezer. It was happening again. There wasn’t a vegetable in sight, and most of the food I had made for you was left untouched. This STILL wasn’t a big enough wake up call for you to take responsibility of your health. “They don’t know what causes it, there’s nothing I can do”, well why can’t you give yourself every possible fighting chance, Dad? If your arteries are susceptible to blockages, why speed up the process with such a poor, fatty diet? You cooked well enough, but you got lazy, and made poor choices. I can appreciate that you would have been tired, and take away is so easily accessible, but why couldn’t you choose pastas and veggie packed stir fries over fish and chips and coke? I couldn’t bear to watch anymore, but still I didn’t leave.

I’m not exactly sure what the deciding factor or moment for me was. Maybe it happened gradually over time, but I finally made up my mind that you were not going to respect me and that if I wanted the respect I deserve, I was going to have to give it to myself. The last time we spoke, really spoke, was face to face, in my car. My mental health had completely deteriorated, and I divulged to you something that isn’t easy for me to talk about. I told you that I was suicidal, and I told you why. I had come so far where my mental health was concerned, and even coming home to the possibility of you dying, as heartbroken as I was, it was something that I could eventually overcome. It was everything that happened after that wore me down. The constant rejection and complete disregard from you ate at me bit by bit, until I couldn’t see any worth in myself or even life. I found myself fantasising about running my car, full speed, into a tree, or maybe I could’ve overdosed on pills, I’m sure they were easy enough to get. If I could’ve, I would’ve walked into the bay until the water was over my head, and then kept going until I slipped silently away from everything. Sometimes I would go on sit on a bridge and watch the traffic below, imagining what it would be like to jump. I was terrified, knowing myself enough to know that at any wrong moment there would’ve been no stopping me. For me to tell you this was not something I was proud of or bragging about. It was my final desperate plea for you to acknowledge just how much pain I was in, and maybe shake some sense in to you.

I followed up this conversation with a txt message, for you had completely missed my point, but you only ignored me. The next time I saw you was at the Frankston Waterfront Festival six weeks later. You accused me of avoiding you (which I had not been) and when you threatened me in the middle of the crowd, I was grateful mum stepped in before security did. “We’re going to sort this out, or you’re going to feel my wrath” you said, your finger inches from my face and a crazed look in your eye, and stupidly, I believed you actually wanted to. Since then I have barely heard from you. A few missed calls here and there that, when I enquired as to what you rang for, you replied “nothing”. I even ran into you at Vic Roads and was prepared to go for a coffee and talk this out, but you avoided the invitation. For my birthday, naively, I thought you might call as you usually did. You decided to send a txt. Three words, that would’ve meant more coming from a complete stranger. I was crushed.

Later I learnt that you had put up a post on your Facebook for my birthday, a photo taken from my own Facebook and a brief caption, for all of your friends to see. I’m sure the ego boost you got from all of their comments filled the gap where I was supposed to be, for a time anyway. It’s a shame you put so much of your energy into this fake Facebook fantasy by which so many of us are ruled, and no energy into the real, here and now relationship with your only daughter. I had long since deleted you from Facebook. The trauma I suffered (for it was traumatic) watching you gloat through status’ and comments, praise coming left right and centre for your afore mentioned “friend”, and when they showed you the photos they took of you whilst you were in your coma, not knowing if you would wake again (Who does that?), you posted them on Facebook for the world to see, and for me to re live every time I scrolled on my news feed. You wouldn’t even take it down when I begged. You still had to get those few extra likes in, right?

Perhaps I am being stubborn, I just thought maybe you would try harder. Even when I reached out with potential conversation starters, each time you threw them back in my face. I thought that being your daughter might have meant something to you, but after everything I gave up, I am literally left with nothing. I have never been more broken in my entire life. I wish you could understand the effect this has had on your family, Dad. Because these heart attacks didn’t just happen to you, they have happened to all of us. The irony of it all is that for so long I was so afraid of losing you and not having a father to share my life with, but, the reality of it is that these fears have come true. I won’t have a father there to walk me down the aisle, or to meet my children, maybe even grandchildren, and it’s not because you died, it’s because you can’t even reply to a txt from me in a civil and polite manner, at the very least. That’s how much I mean to you now. So naturally, I look back on my childhood and I question everything. (How can I not?). Every memory of us together is now blackened by an unwavering cloud of doubt. Do you love me Dad? Did you ever? For 26 years it was something I had never questioned, but now, I can never be sure.

I am saddened to think that this could be the end of our relationship. Life is so fragile and precious and should not be wasted, and were it anyone else in my predicament, I would tell them to spend as much time with you as they can because we don’t know how long we have left. But it’s not as simple as that. Your actions have not been those of the father I thought I knew, and to a certain degree I feel like that man did die in October. I am in no way saying that you cannot change my mind, or that I don’t want to fix this. But I cannot be the one making all of the moves anymore. I’ve tried that and it has gotten me nowhere. So now it’s your turn Dad. The ball is in your court.


Your Daughter