real life

'I lost my dad to COVID-19 a year ago today. His death taught me 5 important lessons.'

I wake up to go to the bathroom. A pretty unremarkable story on any other day, but March 30th is no longer any other day.

I reach for my phone, feeling around on the bedside table until I locate it. My eyes haven’t even opened, but I find it within seconds. 

The light from the screen clicks on, displaying a photo from another life - my friends and I on a mountain somewhere in “pre-COVID times.” 

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I swipe it away, sliding my thumb across the screen with the ease of my eyelids sliding open.

I grip the device tightly, trying to work out why I grabbed it in the first place. I don’t need it for anything in particular. And I know that I shouldn’t wake up this way - I’ve read the articles, watched the docos, whatever.

Blue light = Bad! Cancer! Blindness! 

2903820 reasons to ditch your phone before bed!

But this year, my iPhone has become a kind of techy teddy bear. Some nights, I’ve woken up cuddling it under my neck. I’m not proud to admit that.

Maybe, subconsciously, my mind knows it’s where mum is. My phone is, in fact, the only place I see her now. Or see anyone, really. This weekend marked exactly one year since lockdown started. And the moment my entire life moved into Apple products.

A sloppily arranged array of apps emerge, and the glowing interface automatically softens to match the ambiance of my room. Again, magic. I respect and despise this device in equal measure. 

I check the clock in the left-hand corner - 2:24 am AEDT - before noticing an absence of notifications. I stare blankly at my unmarked apps. Not out of disappointment, but out of relief. 

In 2021, peace to me is an empty message bank. No work emergencies, or family drama, senseless deaths or Donald Trump disasters.

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At this same hour last year, I woke up to this text: “Michele, I know you’re sleeping, but I wanted you to know your father passed about an hour ago from the Coronavirus. He gave up his ventilator because there’s a shortage and his lungs couldn’t hang on any longer. This thing acts quickly. But he went peacefully and is in a better place.”

It was March 30th, 2020 at 2:15 am, and 10:15 am on March 29th in Chicago, where Dad was. He had been admitted to the ICU less than 48 hours before. 

When I got up to use the bathroom that night, I had to wipe my bum with a napkin - a sobering reminder that the pandemic was over here, too. 

I remember looking in the mirror for a few minutes at my Dad’s nose, and his cheeks and his freckles, a few things he left me with. 

I tried not to cry - tissues were on short supply. Then I crawled back into bed, called my sister, and began scrawling these words until I eventually fell back asleep. I told work I’d be offline for a bit. 

Now here I am again, wide awake and wondering what’ll happen. But this time, I’m grateful, not fearful, for what the next few days will hold. 

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In a few hours, I’ll go for a run. Or maybe to the gym, because I can now. 

I’ll call mum, who has since received both Pfizer jabs to protect against the same disease that befell Dad a year ago. How amazing is humanity? To pull that off so quickly? 

At 11:30 am, I will go into the city to take my Australian Citizenship test. 

I didn’t choose this day - the government randomly assigns them. I like to think it’s the Department of Home Affairs’ Universe’s way of re-defining March 30th for me. Handing me something new and exciting on a day otherwise looming with loss. Hopefully, I’ll pass the test, and dad will smile. 

He never got to see my life here, but I like to think he’d be proud knowing “baby Michele” carried on his curiosity about the world.  

Tonight, I’ll meet friends for dinner, in a restaurant, without a mask.

Welcome back to precedented times. 

Looking back on the immeasurable space between that day and today, between that article and this one, I realise a lot has changed, even though I rarely left the confines of my apartment. 

I lost my dad and quit my job and developed a new appreciation for things like technology and toilet paper.

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Mostly, the last 365 days gave me A LOT of time to think. Here are a few things I thought about. 

It’s possible to grieve a parent twice.

While dad technically died from Coronavirus, he hadn’t really been living for years. It was alcoholism that stole most of his time, COVID-19 just claimed what was left of it.

Still, envisioning him in hospice toppled me like a Jenga tower.

It wasn’t his first trip to the hospital - far from it, actually. We’d almost lost him before. And mentally, he was lost to dementia. He’d even faced the ultimate social isolation - jail - after a couple of DUI charges. 

But I realise now the difference between emotionally letting go of someone and actually saying goodbye to them is the realisation that that’s all you get. 

I imagine it’s like thinking you don’t want kids, but then if you find out you can’t have them, you’re unexpectedly devastated.  

Losing a parent you have a close relationship with would no doubt be unimaginably painful (mum, never die), but losing a parent you were already pretty much living without is a different kind of grief. 

It’s a grief for what could have been, but never was, and now never can be.

It’s a guilt that you could have called more or tried harder. It’s an acceptance of getting half of the parenting package deal. It’s an overwhelming appreciation for the half you do have.

Michele with her mum and sister in earlier years. Image: Supplied.

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Being “too busy” to call is no longer acceptable.

Having less than two days to make up for lost time was a pointed reminder of how precious time is.

I will never again tell mum “I’ll call you next week” or put off our calls for work or whatever else seems important. 

Prioritise your people. Check in often. And don’t wait until you think you have something significant to tell them - make those calls just because. 

Or better yet, with the intention of discovering something new. Even people you’ve known your whole life can surprise you. 

Ask the important questions while you have the chance.

2020 sent me on a journey. 

I want to understand my family, not just know what they’re eating for dinner or watching on Netflix. 

Since losing dad, we’ve stopped filling our phone calls with small talk, and I’ve started asking mum all sorts of random questions about their marriage, her parents, their childhoods and mine, her views on things and how she gently instilled them in my sister and me.

Turns out, we had a lot more to talk about than COVID. 

The George Floyd tragedy and other heart-wrenching happenings of this year kicked off a slew of new conversations. 

 While losing dad was difficult, we knew our pain couldn’t compare to that of the Floyd family, who reside in the same city as mum does now. 

We talked about our privilege. Why my immigration journey has been unfairly easier than her students. 

She helped inspire my decision to quit my job - even in a pandemic - reminding me never to settle for something that doesn’t serve me. 

Unemployment doesn’t scare me as much as unfulfilment does. Again, time is too precious.

Understanding her has helped me understand myself in a whole new way. 

And considering how much time I had to spend with myself this year, I’m glad I at least had new angles to explore. I wish I had asked dad more questions while I had the chance, but I’m lucky to have mum to help fill in the blanks.

Michele and her mum. Image: Supplied.

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Grieving in isolation isn’t so bad.

This, I also wasn’t expecting. 

I’ve never been to therapy, I’ve always opted for plane tickets, or time. 

Only one of those things was an option this year, so I did what I could with the time on my hands. And now I really can’t imagine grieving any other way. 

Dad’s death isn’t my first hardship, and when I compare this event to past periods of grief, I find a common theme: I’ve isolated. 

The difference with COVID is I was forced to, whereas before I chose to - either at home or on a trip alone. 

I used to worry that made me an outcast or some kind of weird, sad loner, but dad’s death gave me permission to process in my own time, and lockdown gave me the space to do so. 

In the throes of his addiction, I’d spent the past two decades compartmentalising - putting dad away in a corner of my mind and focusing only on things in my life I could control. 

Avoidance is a survival tactic, but I needed to access that compartment for a bit. I needed to feel shit. And reflect. And write and run and cry and eat cupcakes and take naps and make phone calls and bask in all the other little comforts I imagine you don’t get headspace to do when you’re racing to plan funerals and sort wills and distract yourself with work or plans.

The socially acceptable introversion that came along with 2020 also came with clarity. 

It helped me make sense of something as nonsensical as a pandemic. And I should acknowledge, while I was living alone, I never once felt lonely thanks to an endless stream of digital kindness. 

“OMG.” “CALL ME ASAP” “SENDING LOVE” “THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS” “VIRTUAL HUGS.”

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They rolled in one after the other like a sympathy sniper. 

And from every app that had a messaging function, which by 2020 was pretty much all of them. Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, email. Even my LinkedIn was flooded.

Various iterations of “words can’t describe” and “I can’t even begin to imagine” summed up the tone of most of the messages. 

People I hadn’t spoken to in a decade and even people I’d never spoken to at all took the time to let me know I wasn’t alone. Again, humanity is amazing.

Despite distance, I knew I had countless ears in many time zones to reach out to if I needed to. 

Peace came with knowing I could do that on my terms, and in my own time, without feeling overwhelmed or obligated to do so all at once. 

Closure never comes how you expect.

After decades of hiding dad from the world, suddenly it felt like everyone across it knew him. And not as the drunk that he was when I last saw him. 

A heroic, ventilator-sacrificing, victim-of-a-tragedy version of him. Coronavirus gave us permission to talk openly about his death, without reverting to his real disease - addiction.

I always imagined I’d have to reluctantly tell people he died of alcoholism and endure the shame and judgement that comes with that word.

But perhaps the most unexpected blessing COVID-19 afforded me was the best two phone calls I’d had with him in years: moments made possible by two angels disguised as nurses who put on hazmat suits (or spacesuits, as he called them) to bring him the phone. 

2020 taught me a lot of new medical terms, but one that stands out is ‘terminal lucidity’ -  “the unexpected return of mental clarity and memory, or suddenly regained consciousness that occurs in the time shortly before death.” 

Dad was a different man that weekend. He wasn’t angry or bitter or bored or confused or cagey about his feelings. We laughed and reminisced and talked sports and exchanged “I love you’s”. You know, normal stuff kids do with their dads. 

I asked if he had any advice for me and he told me, “never change.” I told him I wouldn’t, but I suppose that was a lie - I changed a lot this year. 

And hopefully today, by the grace of the Citizenship Gods, I’ll change a little more, taking one step closer towards my dual citizen dreams. 

And mum, don’t freak out, I’ll still come home A LOT... when I’m allowed.

Feature Image: Supplied.