It’s two years since I last saw my father. In the dim light of an undertaker’s viewing
room his face looked oddly unfamiliar, as though death had bestowed a mask to let him
slip away undetected. This suited him, in a way; Dad had become unrecognisable
towards the end, his personality carried away by dementia in a million tiny fragments
like a picnic carted off by ants.
But his hands looked the same. Freed from the tremors of Parkinson’s that had kept the
dementia company, they had fallen still at last.
Just as I’d so often done at the nursing home, I wrapped those hands in mine. I tried to ignore their jarring cold, cradling those fingers that had always seemed so elegant for someone who’d taken such pride in being a mining engineer.
I knew every mottle and every hair; the index finger that used to wag in my direction; and the ring finger that still looked like it was missing something even though it was decades since he’d sent his wedding band ricocheting down a hallway during one of his final arguments with Mum.
Those hands had always seemed so strong and clever and impish to me when I was growing up. When I was small, they’d flung me joyfully in the air, or dangled me while raspberries were blown on my belly. When I grew too big to throw, there were tousles of the hair and hugs. He’d waggle his hands at the side of his head while rolling his eyes and making silly noises, chasing me and my little sister around the house in the guise of a tickling monster we’d dubbed the Mercatops Poo. When the Mercatops caught its helplessly laughing prey it was tickle time; how we never wet our pants remains a source of wonder.
And when things quietened down, those hands tucked us into bed as we wished each other “no number”, the family shorthand for a wealth of kisses so vast it was beyond the realm of counting.
With my dad as a one year old. He was 39 at the time.
Those hands had wielded picks and changed tyres. They’d worked deep under the ground and, when the coalmining industry tried to go belly-up, they’d pushed mops and noisy machines that waxed floors. They’d built an aviary and steered cars across continents. They’d bashed out squalls of hilariously tetchy letters to the local paper, and created handwriting so thinly related to any recognisable alphabet even his doctor was impressed. They’d patted a succession of dogs into ecstasy, and gently cupped young finches that had tumbled from the aviary nests. Years later, when I took Dad to Central Australia, he’d laid them with wonder on the red of the rocks and the white of the ghost gums.
And then in what proved to be our final coherent conversation, those hands had squeezed mine as he let out his anger and fear of what was to come.
Now they were motionless, like the rest of him. My sister was crying in the waiting room.
Mum was outside having a smoke. The sight of her ex-husband in his final stillness had prompted ariver of almost operatic grief; but this was but a small tributary stream compared to the mighty flow of her reflections on her own mortality that was to follow a few cigarettes later.
But for now, it was just me and Dad. In a couple of days at the funeral, the coffin would
become just a box, Dad’s essence instead alive in the photos projected on to the chapel wall, in the music we played, the stories we told. Before then, though, there was one last thing to do. I smiled at the lurid scarf carefully folded into the coffin. This had been my sister’s childhood attempt at creating a Tom Baker-style scarf for Dad, a Doctor Who fan of many years’ standing. The picture had to be completed. From my pocket, I pulled a sonic screwdriver — the Doctor’s multipurpose tool for getting out of sticky spots — and placed it in Dad’s hands. I nearly giggled at the mad incongruity of it all. Dad would have been thrilled.
I kissed his chilly forehead and whispered, “No number.” The conversation would, in its own way, go on but from this moment Dad would be a memory. I looked back one more time at the giant of my childhood and closed the door.