Why my heart breaks every Easter

My father – Emeryk Ostruszka – fell very ill on an Easter Sunday. By 7am we had rushed him to hospital, where we learned that his blocked appendix had burst and he should have been brought to emergency hours ago. Instead, he had quietly crept between couch and bathroom all night, in absolute agony. He had tried to will the pain away because his girls were all home and he so treasured our time together he didn’t want to "ruin" the family Easter or miss out on any of the fun.

Four months later he was dead.

Dad’s heart-wrenching diagnosis of cancer gate-crashed our lives only days after that fateful Easter Sunday. On hearing the news, the bottom fell out of my world. Then the sides caved in and the sky fell too. I was so winded it felt like I would never get my breath back. And for a long time I didn’t.

The cancer news came on dad’s 65th birthday. We rolled into his hospital room with balloons and a huge cake and presents and champagne only to be stopped in our tracks by the look on has face. Ashen, bitterly incredulous, serious, steely, full of grit and fight but somehow knowing and resigned. Frozen to the spot, my hands filled with party paraphernalia, I felt like I was in a Hollywood horror film – the fun-fair scene, where the organ grinder music suddenly becomes eerily loud, the vision goes to slow-mo and every trick mirror now reflects a warped, nightmarish reality.

Turns out, dad’s appendix had been blocked by a tumour. The surgeon had popped in around 6am to say, “Hi, you’ve got cancer, have a nice day”, then left him alone to grapple with the emotional grenade … Don’t get me started on how little we do to ensure support for people when tragic news is delivered around serious illness – when our family learned that his surgery was not successful and he had only weeks to live, we were delivered the devastating news standing in a bloody corridor! 

As the cancerous tumours painfully pushed out from inside my father’s bones, compressing his spine and paralysing his lower body, they also visibly bloomed like rocky outcrops below his skin, blocking his belly, I held my father’s hand again and again. Massaged his fingers and feet. Sang and sang to him. Watched the pale and thin shadow of this effusive, affectionate man slipping away day by day in the most terrible pain. Often I felt like I could not bear it. I understood more fully the need some people have to wail and bang their head and tear their clothes in the face of their enormous loss.

But of course life goes on. And that’s the beauty and the bite. Without the person you love in the world it feels wrong that the sun and moon should rise and the wind should tango through the grass or catch and toss the autumn leaves. And yet it is so right that it does. The renewal and hope – the cycle of life – without it you would remain curled up in a blubbering ball.

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Every Easter since my father’s death, the celebration has never been the same. Always feels bittersweet. Like a peacock displaying its feathers, nature pulls out all stops at this time of year, with the triple act of golden sun, autumn leaves in brilliant colours and the crisp, reviving air. And though I still find pleasure in the egg hunt and of course, the togetherness of being with my children, family and friends, deep down my heart always breaks a little.

Are you the same? Is there an empty place at your table that is just unfillable every Easter? It has been 15 years since my father’s death. Early on, I realised that grief is not a journey from anger to acceptance. Grief is a metamorphosis – where your heart is tattooed by the searing pain and that pain becomes your new normality.

For years I used to sing in a small ensemble that played blues and celtic music and of course, my mum and dad were big fans. The last thing I said to my dad I actually sang to him – his favourite song from our repertoire, which was called Sylvie, by Sweet Honey in the Rock:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-YGzsUc2iE   I sang it at his funeral too  – the grief so deep that I could not cry that day then did nothing but cry every day for months after.

My father never lived long enough to hold or kiss my children (pictured above), enjoy silvery white hair or return to Prague and walk down the streets he used to say he saw often in his dreams (returning to his birth country of Czechoslovakia was a risk for many years because he had never done his national service). Had he lived he would be 80 now. I had always thought he would grow old with us. How I really would have treasured this time with him, particularly now that I am a parent, as I understand him even better.

I still think of dad almost every day – with sadness but also with joy. Every year at Easter when the anniversaries of his illness and birthday roll around, remembering him makes him feel closer. But it never stops hurting – even though I try to steel myself and celebrate the many, many things about him that I miss. Top of that list? His:

Passion

My father was a dreamer and a joker. Lawrence of Arabia and Zorba the Greek were two of his favourite films – which was no surprise – as they both depicted men who were as passionate about everything as he was. He was full of big life, big emotion and big love – a little like Tevye, from Fiddler on the Roof - but with more vulnerability; he was also a man prone to nostalgia and moments of passionate tears. He taught me how to show love and dance with abandon.

Photos

My dad loved to record everything in photos. He would usher us into line and trigger the time lapse on his Nikon so that he could dash to be in the picture too. For him, the important business of Easter was never done until we had taken those shots. Since his death, the family photo selection gets slimmer every year as we forget to click and say ‘cheese’.

Stories

My father moved around to different countries when growing up. He saw Hitler pass by in a parade when he was a child. His father did some work for the resistance movement and his great aunt was killed for handing out anti-Nazi pamphlets. He rarely recalled these stories or how he lost many Jewish friends, who one by one, just didn’t show up to school. More often, he recalled the hijinks of he and his friends - which often involved sneaking into orchards to fill their mouths and pockets with fruit. Growing up in recession, his family often survived on rations. Dad was hospitalized several times for malnutrition and was so hungry he went through a period of eating part of the bread ration in his sleep.

As a father himself, every Easter he would stock up on beautiful fruit and with great enjoyment, when his three daughters arrived home to visit, he would talk us through the wonderful selection. I miss that ritual when I go to my mum’s house. Dad was never ever complacent about the abundance of food and peace and plenty we enjoy in this country.

Obsession with soccer

My dad could have been a professional soccer player – he was headhunted for that purpose but had to dial down that part of his life because no decent living could be made from it back then. When he retuned to a small town he lived in for a time in Germany, where he was the star in the local team, they put it on the front page of the local paper. When I was a kid he used to set the alarm and stay up every night throughout the world cup – in the days where barely anyone even knew what SBS was. If he were alive now? He would love how soccer-obsessed Australia has become. And adore the fact that my girls play every season. How special it would have been to see him pass on all his soccer tricks to my kids.

Community spirit

For dad, the whole world was filled with interesting strangers to befriend. At cafes he would get the life story of the waiters by the time the coffee arrived (something I do that drives my kids crazy). One time in Belgium, he so charmed a local man at the bus stop by chatting to him that the man missed his bus and took my parents back to his house for a cup of tea, which turned into dinner.

Ability to seize the moment

All my life from girlhood to womanhood, my father would stop in mid conversation while walking or driving – to point out a ‘magnificent view’ or remind us to look at the ‘glorious day’. I think it was a legacy from living through wartime – every moment was precious.

Pep talks

My dad always told us that as girls we could do anything and were on an equal footing to any male. He regularly pointed out our possibilities and our potential. It was such a gift.

Sentimental candor

Unlike many men of his generation, my dad devoted much time to us as kids, sharing in the fun of outdoor games and teaching us to swim, play chess and read the time with a special cardboard clock he made. Having a family was the biggest joy of his life. He expressed those feelings as we grew and later, in regular phone calls made with my mum when we lived away from home – it was like having your own personal life coach on tap.

I wish I had all those conversations in writing. Sadly, I don’t, (although when he was dying, through tearful talks I recorded lots of family history on tape). But we are lucky though, to have a copy of a beautiful letter he sent to my sister on her 28th birthday – when she was living in America. Every Easter I take it out and read it. My dad wrote:

“Well it’s birthday time, where we look back 28 years and reminisce. I waited all night on the 14th of August, but it wasn’t until 3am that you arrived and I wasn’t allowed in the room with you and mum. So I took the day off and went to see you in Paddington, hospital – our precious little blonde girl. What excitement, change of life and adjustment to suddenly have our own wonderful daughter.

You were such a lively and special baby. How quickly the years have passed and now you are a grown woman. We are so proud of you– to have not only a beautiful, mature and intelligent daughter, but also to enjoy the bond we have created as true companions and friends ... These years have gone past so quickly. Reminiscing brings back so many wonderful thoughts of happy days when life was simple but we enjoyed so much, even though we had very little money. We have grown together, enjoying life to the full, with a love that is deep and sincere.“

The letter goes on like this for two full pages. Gosh, I miss the emotional top-up that dad’s little chats used to bring. But I remind myself that I am lucky to have had that level of life of affection and attention and appreciation in my life.

Before he slipped away the "why we love you" speech we’d written to give my dad at his big 65th birthday party was tearily delivered to a dying man. I’m so grateful that we got to tell him what a wonderful, giving father he was and how his enormous, selfless love shaped us. Every Easter I try to celebrate those memories. I take a deep breath and remind myself to feel the ‘magnificent’ warmth of the sun on my face in the hope those golden rays will chase away some of the darkness of this now familiar, aching grief.

Are you missing someone this Easter? Is there a deep sadness because of their absence at this special time of celebration? Please share your memories and feelings with us.

Stephanie Osfield is an award winning health journalist and newbie blogger. To read her recent posts eg about being a shipwrecked superwoman, cancer’s link to sleeping pills and how to help a partner who has low EQ (emotional intelligence), go to Savvy by Stephanie Osfield athttp://www.savvysteph.com/

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