The Unbearable Pain of Watching Your Father Die
That night, I couldn’t sleep; the pain in my tooth kept me awake.
It throbbed with every heartbeat. It felt like shards of lightning spiked off in every direction, ricocheting around my skull. No matter the position of my head on the pillow, the intensity was incredible.
Around 3 a.m., I received the first video call. My brother never called, and if he did, it wouldn’t be in the middle of the night. “You need to book a flight,” he said. “Dad’s dying.” He was at the hospital with my dad and said that Mum was too upset to talk. I needed to come straight away.
He left the call with these words: “He won’t last much longer.”
I was heavily dosed on codamine, paracetamol, cough syrup, and codeine, with a few sleeping pills thrown in. I was in excruciating pain. But those five words cut through me, each slamming with more impact than the last — compounding misery.
Two years before, I had gotten a similar call. I was urged to fly home; the family was concerned I wouldn’t have much more time to see Dad. I live in New Zealand, so a flight to the United Kingdom is about the longest and most expensive flight I could make.
My dad was notorious for withstanding vast levels of pain. He could go to the dentist for a tooth removal and not even need anesthesia. He had already beaten cancer; the hospital staff was amazed at his threshold for pain.
I arrived back in England with his grandson in tow and thanked G-d that my dad’s health had perked up. Soon after, he could attend synagogue with his sons — something he couldn’t do the previous three months. He sat there beaming between my brother and me. I couldn’t understand all the fuss. Silently, I cursed having to spend so much money on a vacation I didn’t want or could hardly afford.
As we came to recite the mourner’s prayer, I broke down. Everything finally hit me: The reality of no longer having my dad’s support, knowing we’d never speak again, that this world would no longer be graced by his presence.
I feel guilty about that now; I didn’t know that would be the last occasion I would see him alive. I resented the trip and failed to appreciate the moments we shared fully, but I’m glad he finally got to meet my son.
This time, though, Dad demanded that the family shouldn’t tell me how sick he had become. He didn’t want me to worry; he didn’t want to put people out. I wasn’t aware of the loss of dignity that comes with having severe cancer, the pain, and the amount of morphine he needed to get through.
After talking to my brother, my emotional state deteriorated fast. My wife had awoken and wanted to know who called; I told her the bad news as I booked the first flight back to London.
My brother-in-law called shortly thereafter from sunny Spain. My dad, who had possibly sensed the end was coming, had told my sister and him to go ahead with their holiday. He insisted he would be fine; he didn’t want her to cancel her plans. I believe he wanted as few people with him at the end so he could spare their feelings.
Behind my brother-in-law on the screen, the setting had a surreal air of comedy. Palm trees gently swayed behind him. The balcony baked in the late afternoon sun. The tranquility shattered by the wailing of a broken spirit — mine.
I struggled to take in his message; I still reeled from my brother’s call. My sister was too distraught to appear on video, but it was clear they were packing up and heading home fast.
At 4 a.m. came a video call from my brother with Dad next to him:
“He can still hear you. Brace yourself. He doesn’t look good, but he can still hear.”
I remember thinking, how bad can he be? Surely, everybody was a tad melodramatic. I was in denial. But with one look at my dad, I knew.
It was the most horrific moment of my life. The call didn’t last long — I couldn’t endure seeing him like that. I quickly passed my mobile over to my wife, and with that, the deathly scene had been censored.
The final call that morning arrived from my tearful brother-in-law urging me to book the first flight. He informed me that Dad had passed away. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that mine was probably the last voice Dad heard.
After he died, doctors remarked that not many could have withstood that level of pain for much longer.
At the airport, I had to give up my stash of pharmaceutical drugs. I was due to have surgery the following week to have the troublesome teeth removed, but it was canceled. The ache had grown to monstrous proportions, and the pain would crescendo after every fifth wave. It was unbearable.
I began drinking hard whiskey on the flight as soon as the bar was open. It was to be nonstop Christchurch to London, with one change — 25 hours of travel.
In Jewish culture, the body has to be buried immediately; it’s a tradition that was important to my family. Dad, the former horse-racing gambling fanatic, had become a pious man late in life.
He had previously become disillusioned with the synagogue that he belonged to for 40 years because they treated him as a stranger. When he left, he was welcomed into the open arms of Chabad. Here he fell in love again with his religion.
Over 150 people came to his funeral, including respected Hasidic rabbis from North London. My dad would’ve been proud of the impact he had made. Everybody loved him. It was his calm nature and generous spirit that drew people in. He was always the first to volunteer help, whether funds or man-power. He never complained even when the going got tough. It was admirable to see him walk to the synagogue on the Sabbath despite his obvious pain. I loved that about Dad; he never gave up.
The one positive of the trip was that I now had access to stronger medication, thanks to my mum and her elderly sisters. (Nobody has a better collection of drugs than older women.) I popped one pill after another. My teeth dulled into a low throb, but the manageable pain was a constant reminder that all was not well.
It wasn’t until the penultimate day of the shiva that I broke down. Shiva (Hebrew: שִׁבְעָה, literally “seven”) is the weeklong mourning period in Judaism for first-degree relatives. The ritual is referred to as “sitting Shiva.” Traditionally, there are five stages of mourning in Judaism; Shiva is considered the third stage and lasts for seven days.
I was sleep-deprived, pilled up, and grief-stricken. On top of that, I was overwhelmed with having to talk to so many people. For seven days, I would sit in line with my family and answer the same questions repeatedly. It was like a lousy interrogation, the police questioning me until I break.
“How was your flight?” it would begin. “That’s a long way. How long does it take?” On and on it would go. I didn’t know two-thirds of the people there. They were mostly my sister’s friends paying respects or old friends of Dad, Mum, or my brother. I left 20 years ago and didn’t keep in touch with anyone.
As we came to recite Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer for the loss of a father or mother, I broke down. Everything finally hit me: The reality of no longer having my dad’s support, knowing we’d never speak again, that this world would no longer be graced by his presence.
I cried and couldn’t stop.
A week later back in New Zealand, I had the first troublesome tooth removed by a dentist. Six more would follow in surgery. It was by far a more pleasant experience than the first removal.
Each time my tongue locates the gaps in my teeth, I’m reminded of Dad’s death. I’ve had to eat differently and adjust to the empty space that can’t be filled. I’ve had to get on with life missing a vital part of me.
Losing seven teeth doesn’t come close to the pain of losing one father.