My father often looked at my mother, like no one else in the world existed.
Their eyes would connect and it was as if they were communicating so much, silently, beyond anything we kids could have understood.
So many times it must have gone over our heads.
Perhaps it was simply a difference in height. Perhaps we were all too preoccupied with moving and growing beneath them as they would lock eyes on each other.
Time stopping only for the two of them, so briefly.
On summer holidays especially, I would sometimes look up and notice this rare magic between them.
I guess because indelibly, everything somehow managed to slow down. The full stretch of the Aussie golden sun over us, as we migrated to the beach, had such a relaxing effect on us all, how could it not.
One beach adventure, in particular, I can think about now like it was yesterday.
I was 8.
Hot bitumen scorched our bare feet as we piled out of the old fiat; hopping from the melted tar onto the hot peppered sand; leaving mum and dad behind, arms loaded with striped beach umbrellas, towels, hats and sunscreen.
Racing ahead only to stop and turn back around whenever Dad would yell ‘slow down.’ I can still see them walking along the track behind us; Dad, kissing mum’s forehead and reaching for her hand. The look he gave her. I didn’t think too much of it then and would only view it as a chance to take off again.
It was never the nearest beach we ventured to either, it was always some out of the way unprotected spot Dad had heard about, usually when he went to get the morning paper at first light. It was predictably one that required a good half hour of trekking through a rainforest to get to, avoiding scrub turkeys and bashing sticks together to ward off brown snakes.
This adventure was no different.
We never swam between the flags as kids. The crowds and the flags were always tiny ants to us, behind a hazy wall of heat billowing off the sand, as we set ourselves up as far away as possible.
We much preferred being kings of our beach.
Lone wolves, with plenty of space to lay down lazily beside each other. We would build castles and forts while adults read books and tanned topless. Balls were kicked to squealing happy kids, fighting to be the one to kick it back.
In this faded memory one thing sticks out; Mum and Dad took the opportunity, with aunties and uncles to watch over us, to head off and walk hand in hand along the shore. Laughing, as they goaded each other; stepping into the frothy white bubbles, from bright green rolls of the saltwater waves.
I sat on my towel, waiting for the sun to dry up the hundreds of droplets on my wet skin. Watching them intently; muscles burning, from fighting against waves moments before, dumping me against sandbars. Muscles, now burning even more, as I sat there. Fighting the urge to jump up and join them.
This was such a unique creature to study. Mum and Dad gazing into each other’s eyes as they laced fingers and walked along the water’s edge. I was so used to them being our adults; our sometimes stressed and cranky adults. They were supposed to function for us and then find all their joy in us too. It was strange watching them like this and almost made me feel uneasy, that they could be so happy without us.
I watched, until they were ants too. Willing them to hurry up, for their shapes to grow bigger and bigger as they finally returned to me.
I was thinking about that sun ray filled morning as I rested my head against the cool of the concrete wall of the hospital corridor.
The day I found out dad had cancer. I was 35.
I found out before mum did. We all had.
‘Don’t tell your mother, until you all get here,’ we had all been told over the phone.
‘I don’t want her to know until she has you all here to help her through it.’
That was the longest 5-hour drive of my life, one I also never wanted to get to the end of at the same time.
Dad had been in a hospital bed for 3 days. He had been admitted because he had a chronic pain in his side. We thought at worst, it was a gall bladder needing to come out.
But it wasn’t his gall.
It was all over his spine and the pain he felt on his side was from a tumour rubbing against a nerve that stretched from his spine to his stomach.
Suddenly somehow, 4 months have passed by since that day and here I sit, ready to say goodbye to my dad; forever.
Instead of holding hands while splashing and wading into barrels of aqua green; my parents are sitting quietly holding hands amongst the grey and the tubes. This strange creature has me feeling more than uneasy.
We have sat in cold, sterile corridors of 3 different hospitals in the 4 months since he was first admitted.
We continue to fail at really understanding any of it.
My mother especially.
I have noticed, as much as their fingers are often laced; entwined; welded tight around each others, over the past 4 months and my mother has completely fallen into the role of caring for my father; they fail to really look at each other.
To look into each other’s eyes like they had so magically before.
I know though, mum is too scared to. Keeping her head down, busily fussing over the sheets and the meals and the bruises on dad’s legs he can no longer feel. This keeps it all from being anywhere near truth and so this also keeps dad’s anxiety at bay too.
Even today. His final day, we still believed there was hope. He could improve; get better; come back to us. His shape would move closer and closer. We foolishly did not consider any other option, despite how close the tide lapped at our feet.
I was so angry with how fast it all happened. How unfair it was that no matter what piece of hope and positivity we landed on, we were cruelly robbed of it bit by bit.
Once cancer was diagnosed, we went to the place everyone does.
‘We will fight it, you will be fine Dad and you will be up and home in no time’.
Then it was his legs, the brutal cruelness of him being told he may never walk again.
‘We can work it out Dad, as long as we get through this. Who cares about a wheelchair, we just want you to survive.’
Then, when it had reached his lungs within months and life support became another wave that dumped upon me in the story. We begged for him to make it through the night, to just get through one night. ‘Fine’ we said to whoever was listening, ‘we will take 5 more years, even 3…just please let him wake up.’
When he did wake up, we were told he was too weak and there was nothing more they could do unless he got stronger and fought and improved some.
‘OK’, we said indignantly, ‘can we move him to palliative care, so he is comfortable’.
“It is too late for that,” they quietly replied a few days later, no eye contact, heads down.
We settled on the only thing we could do for my dad, with the tiny piece of hope left; as tiny as a sea shell. We would buy him a quilt to brighten his room and make what was happening as cosy as possible, for us more than him, I now see.
So while I hurled myself down the aisle of the bedding shop so sure if I just picked the right quilt everything was going to be OK, my phone rang.
I was told to come back to the hospital, the time had come.
The universe took the last trace of hope and there was nothing left but to face what was happening. It stole it all from us and dumped us with it over and over again as we thrashed around in the nightmare that was this undertow, turning us upside down as we tried so hard to swim to the top and gasp for air.
I sit while we wait.
He now has no machines to assist him and we have to watch him like a wounded bird with rattling breath as he slowly fades before us. Cheeks no longer rosy pink.
He has been given morphine to make it as peaceful and painless as possible, but even this seems to have been robbed from us, as he struggles and fights more than he should be right now. I worry they have not given the correct dose. I worry nothing will ever be right again.
It is the hardest thing my eyes have ever had to see. What concurrently is happening in this room, in this surreal space, is also the most beautiful.
Because once again my parents are looking at each other as if they were the only 2 people to ever exist. For the hours that drifted that day away from us, dad had his eyes locked only on my mother.
As she moved around his hospital room, his gaze did not waiver.
My Dad slowly left us, in that room, that day. Before he did though, their eyes connected, their fingers of each hand welded tight, a whisper from each other’s faces. I felt like I was having an out of body experience. Not only our whole lives and memories filling my head, but my parents and their definition here before me of true, complete love.
Eyes locked, mum was there with him as much as she could be; her gaze slowly softening the fear in his desperate eyes until they finally were no longer.
I like to think in that moment, they were both on that sparkling warm beach again.
Dad taking mums hand and kissing her on her forehead.
Waves, gently kissing their feet.
Their children’s giggles echoing behind them.
Eyes only for each other, always.