The Memories We Pass On

Updated: Jun 24, 2020


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| This is the 480th story of Our Life Logs |

Each time we visited the hospital with the fear that this would be the time, the moment life would leave my father, he would pull me aside. He would go over the plan, making sure I had it memorized. He said that I was the strongest, the one who would take care of Mom, and of everything. That fear of when that moment would come never left me. It became a billowing cloak over my life, keeping me from ever truly living for myself.

Section Break-Mountains

I was born in 1984 in the subtropical lands of Durban, South Africa, and four years later, my little brother came along. I have wonderful memories of my childhood. I remember my parents, brother, and me in the kitchen making cheese bread together. So simple, yet so real. We were a very close-knit family, drawn even closer by my dad’s poor health.

For most of my life, my dad battled chronic pain, struggling to do even menial work. He was in the Navy for 21 years, and in those many years he endured strenuous physical exams that took a toll on his body. When I was 12, he was officially diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. He had a severe case that attacked not only his immune system, but also his tissues, joints, and eventually internal organs. By the time I was 15, he was using crutches and was forced to retire from the Navy.

Dad, from his Navy days.
Dad, from his Navy days.

While other teenagers were out on dates and attending parties, I was at home helping my mum take care of my dad. But don’t be mistaken; I loved it that way. We would read Shakespeare together and dissect every meaning of the words. We loved watching movies and chatting about his days in the Navy. He was the kindest man I knew, and he always knew how to make me laugh. Oddly enough, a part of me is grateful that his illness gave me more of him. I may not have any exciting stories to tell by the fireside, but I had a great relationship with my dad, and that’s all the story I need to tell. 

In his lifetime, my dad has multiple surgeries and the fear that he would fall was always at front of our minds. We were very protective of him. Every aspect of our family’s life took his condition into account, whether that be where we ate—if it was easy for him to get there with crutches, or what we ate—if it had food that he could easily chew. It became a habit, like brushing your teeth every day, making sure Dad was okay. I decided early on that when I grew up, I’d provide for my parents and make sure my dad always had the best possible care.

Section Break-Mountains

When it came time for college, I stayed close, majoring in marketing. But I soon realized that building a successful career in my field wasn’t going to work in my home city of Durban. As much as it pained me to leave my parents behind, I moved to Johannesburg, about 600 kilometers away, when I was 20. The plan was to move them to the city with me once I had reached a stable financial state.

To reach that goal, I threw myself into my career, bulking up resume and gaining traction in the field. That was my life for the next 10 years–work, work, work. In the midst of building my career, I got married at 23. It was a little fast and we were young, but I couldn’t bear the thought of not having my dad at my wedding, so I wed early. My brother relocated to Johannesburg in 2009 and we both made sure we bought single-story houses so Dad could move around when he visited.

Even though I spoke with my parents on the phone often, I couldn’t afford to visit them more than once every three or four months. But they were always on my mind. I’d always wonder what they were doing right now. I could be having a great time out somewhere with my husband, and I’d suddenly feel guilty, wondering if my parents were okay. How could I have fun when my parents might be struggling? It was an endless cycle of happiness turned to guilt, turned to shame.

Section Break-Mountains

In 2015, I was finally able to move my parents to Johannesburg into my home. My dad was hesitant at first, but I convinced him with a simple question, “If you die, do you really want Mom all alone in Durban?”

Having my parents so close again was wonderful. It brought me a great deal of comfort to know they were safe and here with me. Mum would cook us dinner, and the four of us would often settle in to watch movies, just like the old days, plus my husband. I’m so glad my parents came when they did. At least I got a year with my dad before life as I knew it fell apart.

Dad and me, 2016.
Dad and me, 2016.

In November 2016, my dad started having difficulty breathing. This wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary, as his arthritis brought on many other health problems over the years. Hospital visits were as common as going to the grocery store. But that still didn’t change our lingering fears—the fear that maybe this time wouldn’t end with dad being wheeled home after getting the “all clear.” And as it turned out, those fears were warranted. Because this time, Dad was in a bad way. We just didn’t know it yet.

Mum and I visited him the day before his passing. As we were holding him up, helping him eat and get washed up, he suddenly blacked out, collapsing in our arms. That’s when we knew something was off—that this wasn’t going to be like the other times. We called my brother to come through and waited patiently in the parking lot for visiting hours. When I went to visit at 7pm, Dad seemed fine, great actually. He was smiling and laughing without any worry. I just sat and watched. I couldn’t help but feel he was putting on a show. I knew him. I always saw through his masks.

The next morning, after dropping off my mum at the hospital, my husband and I were driving to work, and I got the call. If you’ve lost someone, you know what I mean by “the call.” That moment when you see who’s calling and your stomach drops, and you just know what they’re going to say before you pick up.  I answered, and my blood turned to ice.

We rushed back to the hospital where my mum was waiting for me with tears streaking down her sunken cheeks. I took hold of her shaky hand, and we walked into my dad’s room together. My brother arrived a few minutes later. From the moment I laid eyes on him in his bed, I knew he was gone. I felt it. I wanted nothing more than to collapse and retreat into myself in that moment. But I couldn’t. My mum needed a pillar of strength more than ever. So, I went onto autopilot.

Section Break-Mountains

I took care of some of the funeral arrangements, bank paperwork, and all the legalities. I threw myself into it so quickly that I didn’t allow myself time to process my emotions. That was how the first year without Dad went too, keeping busy so I didn’t have to face it. The Hindu culture holds many different ceremonies during the first year of a person’s passing, so that kept my mum and me distracted. I also threw myself back into my job, not giving myself the time I desperately needed to grieve.

Honestly? It was like chaos in a teacup. From the outside, I looked fine and functioning okay. But internally, I was lost. I completely lost my sense of self. When you’ve planned most of your life around someone, losing them is like losing a part of your soul. What was I supposed to do with myself if I wasn’t taking care of Dad? How should I think when I don’t check if a place has stairs or lifts? Should I be feeling so guilty about it? All these questions filled up inside me until the second year when I crashed. Hard.

The enormity of not having my dad paired with the guilt of not having given him the joy of being a grandparent made me feel awful. I feared that I hadn’t done enough