Fiction: 'Map of the Human Hand'

My father once told me that life was a great adventure, and that death was just a part of living. I wonder how he felt as he approached his own death.

Nothing in this bland hospital room embodies the man lying in the bed – but what does one take when you go to die? I see he has packed light; he does not intend his stay to be long.

‘I’m not afraid of dying,’ he’d said, ‘I’ve had a good innings. We’ve all got to go sometime.’ So from a home full of memories, he has brought only the necessities; pyjamas, watch, wallet and a razor – Dad would always keep up his high standards, right to the end. So on this last great adventure, he brought no baggage for he knows there is little time.

The thin cotton pyjamas cling to his economically lean body. Skin that once sported a healthy tan is now pallid and yellow and his belly grows distended and rock hard as the tumour thrives. Those once tight muscles have now shrunk and withered as his flesh is pared to the very bone. The doctors have assured me that he feels no pain; I wonder at this as I hurt so much just watching his chest labour with every breath.

As I watch over him, I am reminded of those once strong men who stumbled from those desolate Prisoner of War camps. Armies of shadow men with windowless souls; scrawny frail birds with their gauzy transparent skin drawn tightly across their skulls, cheekbones protruding and their all seeing eyes staring blankly from lavender caverns.

My father would hate this – me watching and waiting – both of us longing to leave but neither wanting to go, just yet. I’m sure he knows I am here; they say the hearing is the lasting sense. But this man isn’t my father. My father was so alive, so real, so loud; tall and sinewy, active and entertaining, that man could not have become this spent, frail, almost ephemeral body.

As I hold his familiar hand I am able to see what the living of his life has left behind. Here, there is a small clue for one knows where to look. Forty years of hauling huge carcasses across chequered chopping blocks has kept his hands smooth and soft; the animal fat and grease an obliging balm to the inevitable and numerous cuts and stitches of a butcher’s lot. And now, as I trace my fingers across this everlasting map, those delicate white scars sit alongside criss-crossed tramlines of earth; the in-ground dirt and crescent rimmed fingernails that become the indelible stain of a gardener’s hands.

These seemingly unremarkable hands are yet remarkable because they are all that remain of my father, or the man that he was. These hands are the only proof I have that this unrecognizable, fragile shell holds the essence of him. Through my blurred eyes I am able to see that they are indeed my father’s strong and hard working hands that chopped, and stacked the timber logs for our fireplace, yet would always tip his cloth cap to ladies on the street, as if it were a fine Stetson.

As I turn them over, I recognize that they are the strong, secure hands that gave me to my husband on my wedding day. And as a tear slides down my cheek and splashes inside his soft fleshy palm, I recall how these hands lovingly cradled each of my babies as if they were precious gifts. As my children grew, these hands would once again become protective and vigilant as he cupped his palm behind dandelion heads or encouraged them to wrap their tiny fists about his knuckles as they tottered through their first steps.

Now when I close my eyes, I can see him kneeling in his garden, his long slender fingers, seemingly always patient and gentle, coaxing, winding and wrapping the young tomato vines about their bamboo stakes.

I link my fingers between his and recall how when I was little, I would march beside him every Anzac day. His broad chest spangled with ribbons and medals while his hands swung proudly by his side until one would flourish into a rigid salute. And then, when it was time to reflect, he’d bow his head and place one hand across his heart to honour his absent comrades. The day would go on long after the ceremonies had ceased. Glasses of ale would be raised to toast those who never returned, and for those that were left standing there would be the ritual tossing of two bronze pennies, high into the air.

My father had wanted to die on his own terms in that home that held all his memories. He wanted to be surrounded by the equity of love that had taken him a lifetime to build. He wanted to end his days pottering around his garden in his threadbare cardigan and patched work pants. Or better still, to keel over after watching his beloved Collingwood win. But pain wages a relentless war; it gnaws silently into your bones until its eventual triumph. Finally exposing itself, it slipped from its hiding place and awoke a fear my father had never known.

Now, nothing tangible remained. My father wore his translucent skin like an x-ray. I kissed his cool forehead and begged him to be on his way, to let go and depart on his last great adventure. His clear blue eyes stared blankly, he saw nothing and yet I could see everything.

Once more, the morphine played its hypnotic tune and a breath rattled from somewhere deep down inside. As I waited for that reassuring rhythm to return, I held my breath as my father exhaled his last. The cancer had won; it had consumed its host and yet committed its own suicide, leaving behind nothing more than a husk, a silhouette, just an imprint of his soul.

It seemed right that I should farewell him on his final journey, for it was him who’d welcomed me into this world.