A Tribute to My Father

My father had a stroke on 22 September 2006 – my parents’ 22nd wedding anniversary. He remained in a persistent vegetative state until his death on 12 November 2007. But to me, 22 September is the day I lost my dad.

It’s been five years to the day, and I can still remember the phone call from the doctor. I remember walking down to the varsity computer labs and falling into Lindsay’s arms. I remember – only just – cars buses planes bakkies elevators and then you, deathly still and a tangle of blue tubes.

I remember the sound of your heartbeat on the monitor, the hush-hush-hush of the ventilator, the ebb and flow of the ICU at the hospital in Gaborone. I remember them telling us there’s no hope, then small hope, how much they cannot say. Your Polish neurologist – I had to translate his English for mom because she couldn’t understand him. I remember rubbing the circulation back into your hands when they turned blue and fretting about your drip and playing classic rock in the hopes that something, somewhere would stir and you would come back to us.

I remember Hotel California.

I remember that quiet ward in Jwaneng – we moved in and took over that semi-private room and we made it our second home. There was always music. I remember reading you The Hobbit in the December holidays, I remember bringing you small gifts and cards we read to you and a Christmas tree that flashed different colours to keep you stimulated. I remember the nice man from the Bears furniture store. He gave you a bright yellow teddy and we named him Horace. You would follow him with your eyes and if we spoke you’d track us too.

I remember the day the nurses called us because you were breathing heavily. The doctor came and checked you and told us he thought you were crying.

I remember bringing you home to Ladysmith, how I was too scared to go into your room because the nurses intimidated me. But from 4.30pm to 6pm was Our Time. I would read you a bit of what I was reading – Mansfield Park or Harry Potter or Bleak House. I would read until I was hoarse. I remember feeding time – I loved to feed you, it made me feel as though I could help. I learned to change you, move you, do your physiotherapy – I even suctioned you once. It was the scariest moment of my life, I thought I would hurt you and you wouldn’t be able to breathe anymore.

I remember your funeral. I don’t remember my Eulogy – I read it now and it just seems lame – but I remember the Funeral Dress and being upset because the music we played you (“some dance to remember/ some dance to forget”) distorted at high volume on the crappy radio we brought into the church. I remember the Last Post, watching you drive away in the unmarked white van… Gone, gone.

But before…

I remember your faded blue rugby shorts, how your eyes would sparkle when you told us stories – which was every day and often. I remember you singing “Jeremiah was a bullfrog, he was a good friend of mine” – though you never got past the first line. I remember promising to find and bring you Angie, how you expanded my horizons and most of my favourite music was your favourite music.

I remember you crying when I was crying after I broke up with my first boyfriend. And my second. And my third. I remember you playing air guitar, cigarette dangling from your lips. I remember how much my friends loved you and your stories. I remember that last holiday at home when we all gathered around the braai and you told them all stories and held them spellbound. I was a little jealous.

I remember the sound of you kicking your bike to life, watching you roar away. We’d follow you to the motocross track and I remember so clearly the way your blonde hair blew and your shirt whipped in the wind. I remember Misty would whine like mad until you got home or she got to chase you around the track.

I remember you sitting on the step to the patio on your haunches in Jwaneng. I remember you knocking in Sean’s cricket bat, working on your bike – smudge of grease on your shoulder – weeding the garden, planting flowers, fixing things, painting things.

I remember as soon as a storm broke and it started to pour you would run outside and pull the pot plants into the rain.

I remember you waking up at three in the morning to mark schoolwork. I remember that was the only time you ever wore your glasses – though you should have worn them all the time. I remember you taking afternoon naps, every day, falling asleep on the couch in front of the TV, snoring. I remember you rushing to sport in the afternoons – taking the Old Bus to 140km/h on that straight stretch of road in Jwaneng that had a 60km speed limit. I remember you patrolling school play practices, I remember the sound of you teaching and I remember how much the kids loved you. Their parents would always say that you were their kids’ saviour.

I remember making curry – you would always sneak in an extra chilli or tablespoon of powder when mom wasn’t looking. I remember you always insisted on icing the cake – so that it was a work of art – and every time I ice a cake I think how much better you would have done it.

I remember holidays in Ladysmith at Granny’s, how you would get “cabin fever” and we’d walk all around that sleepy town. I remember you teaching me how to parallel park using plastic Coke bottles on an empty stretch of road near the mine dump in Jwaneng. I passed my license first time, and parallel parking wasn’t a problem at all.

I remember how you would say “I’m so proud of you” when you meant “I love you” and we’d never say “Goodbye”, it was “Later”. I remember “Even” and “Sweetness” and how you could swear the air blue. I remember the way you could spin a tale out of the most mundane things.

I remember Grandpa headache powders and Safyr Blue eye-drops wrapped in a handkerchief and put in your pocket. I remember stealing one of your nice ones when I went to boarding school – and I’d put it on my pillow and phone Mom’s South African cellphone number just to hear her voice and I would miss home. I remember talking to you on the phone and you would call mom “The Fuzzy One”. I remember our last ever phone call – how you were so proud of me because I’d finally found my niche. I wish you could see me now.

I remember all of this and I never want to forget. Five years to the day, Dad. And I still imagine you sitting on the veranda with Misty, singing “Jeremiah was a bullfrog, he was a good friend of mine…”

I miss you.

David Peter Whitehead. 8 August 1957 to 12 November 2007.

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