My Pop being unwell was the reason I bought a return ticket for this trip. Usually I buy one way tickets everywhere, so I have more freedom, however this time I thought it best to have a return flight booked in case I needed to fly home in an emergency.
Wanting Pop to have a way to contact me while I was away, I bought him a smart phone and set him up on Whatsapp so he could message me like he did in Australia. One week after I left, he sent me a voice message saying he was tired of all the doctors appointments, and I was worried because he sounded so miserable.
A few days later I received a message that made my heart sink, and my adrenaline shoot through the roof at the same time: “Hey Belinda, can you get in touch when you get this. Doesn’t matter what time it is. Thanks”.
It was early in the morning, and my first thought was that Pop had died. I scrambled frantically to respond, and felt the panic rise as the minutes ticked by without a reply. It was night time in Australia, and I hurriedly set up the Global SIM card I had with me, cursing myself for not organising it earlier. I wanted an immediate way to speak to Pop if I could, rather than rely on Skype.
When the reply came, 52 minutes later (yes, I was watching the clock!), it was to say that Pop had finally been given a diagnosis of leukaemia. We had long suspected that was the case, yet it took the doctors two years to come to the same conclusion.
I wondered briefly if the diagnosis would now give Pop some relief, to have an ‘identity’ of sorts – he had been unwell without an explanation for so long I’m sure he felt he was going a bit crazy at times. I hoped it might improve his mood.
A bone marrow biopsy was scheduled for two weeks time, along with more blood transfusions. He had had transfusions already, and I would cringe at the defeat in his voice each time he told me he still lacked energy, and he didn’t feel any better, like everyone had promised he would. I wanted to shake someone for the lack of communication between clinics, causing missed and rescheduled appointments, and I wanted to scream at the nurse who didn’t take enough blood for a test so he had to go back again the next day to repeat the procedure. For a man so fiercely independent and strong willed, I could see ad hear how much of a toll it was taking on him.
The next day we Skyped, and the sight of him wearing pyjamas during the day, with the fabric hanging off his skeletal frame, was a slap in the face. His once portly size had been diminishing over the years, but he had shrunk even more in the two weeks since I’d left. I struggled to smile as the reality hit me, and after just ten minutes Pop said he was tired and going back to bed. “Inhobbok hafna”, the Maltese words for “I love you”, rolled off my tongue as they had many times before, and I knew his same reply was just as heartfelt and sincere.
My beautiful Pop, who was my biggest fan, my favourite chef, my beloved repeat story teller, and the steady and constant pillar of support in my often unsteady world, was fading away. I had a fierce desire to spend one more afternoon with him, but staring at the blank screen all I managed to do was stifle my crying to stop the echo around the hostel in the early hours.
A week into April he went into hospital for a few days to get a build up of fluid reduced, and I asked if he wanted me to come back. I was told to enjoy myself and there was no need to return yet. Another week later and the scheduled biopsy was called off, because his heart was too weak to withstand a general anaesthetic.
I called Pop at the hospital, and his usually thick Maltese accent had been reduced to a scratchy echo between his struggle to breathe. It was gut wrenching to listen to, yet I clearly heard him say “Inhobbok hafna” once more. I knew then it wouldn’t be long until he was gone. His will to live was expiring, he was ready.
Thinking I had no tears left after my first days of Spanish lessons, I wasn’t prepared for the sobbing that erupted after I said goodbye and finished the call. In yet another hostel, I was grateful for the darkness that surrounded me on the terrace, but I was unable to stop howling. Hugging myself in an effort to stop shaking, I cried for Pop and the physical pain he was in, and I cried for myself – I felt so alone, and knew I would not see him again.
Pop had always wanted to go fast, and in his sleep when his time came, and knowing how stubborn and determined he was, I expected he would have his way. But I still wasn’t ready for him to go. I knew it wasn’t fair to wish he lived longer, but I did. I so badly wanted to give him one more hug and tell him one more time how much I loved him and how much he meant to me.
Everybody said there was no difference between me physically being there and all my calls, messages and videos from afar. After many hours of deliberating, tears, and talking with my Grandmother Carmen, I decided not to return to visit, nor to attend the funeral. I found some comfort when I was told: “Pop knows you love him, and would be by his side as you have always been, if you were in Australia now. You know he loves you too. The funeral and the wake are all really just window dressing for the living”.
I called Pop at the hospital one more time on Sunday night, and said my goodbyes. It was a struggle to keep my voice from cracking as I knew it would be the last time we spoke. There was so much emotion I wanted to convey that my throat closed up and I couldn’t say anything. He said he loved me, and I knew he did. He said to enjoy my trip and I knew he meant it. I always believed what he told me because he never lied to me.
Aside from the religious aspect, asking for the priest to attend and read his last rites was, I believe, Pop’s way of telling everyone he was at peace and ready to go, and that we should hurry up and get ourselves to a point of acceptance with his decision. Keeping his sense of humour until the end, Carmen later told me Pop closed his eyes after the priest left and went to sleep. When he woke some time later, he cautiously opened one eye and glancing suspiciously around the hospital room, stated somewhat dejectedly, “I’m still here? I thought I’d passed away already..” to which she replied with loving exasperation, “Why are you in a hurry? There’s a long wait because others are before you!”
I hoped it happened soon, so that Pop, and selfishly I, weren’t left in limbo. I had no regrets – I’d said often that I loved him, and I’d visited regularly, and told him about all my jobs and my travels, and anything else that happened in my life. I guess that’s where all the past comes into play – it becomes the proof you did, and do, love someone who is now waiting on death’s doorstep, when everything you think of saying seems inadequate or inappropriate at that point.
48 hours later I received the message ‘Pop died this morning..’
Although expected, I was still stunned, and the harsh reality of those words tore at my insides like a physical pain I was not prepared for. The initial shock was brief, but the anguish, sense of loss, and emptiness set their ugly hooks in for the long term.