I stared down at him in his white coffin. He laid there; still, motionless, lifeless, and cold. He resembled a rag doll – the rag doll he bought me on my tenth birthday. I’m nineteen. This is the third day of his funeral; his skin, especially the forearms were wrinkled and dry and his face was strangely paler than the last two days.
He seemed to shrink with every blink I took. No more breathing in air, no more consumption of food, no more blood rushing through his veins – only bones waiting to rot into thin dust; becoming a tiny spark of the universe – with no boundaries. Is this the aftereffect of death? Why can’t it leave him alone? Why can’t it leave us alone? There was no life in him left, and yet I still wanted to believe there was a miracle pill he could swallow to come back to life.
But this would alter the timeline, won't it? So what was I thinking? He’ll never open those eyes again, I thought. I'll never hear his voice for the rest of my life, I thought. Not even a whimper. And I'll have to live with it from now on, I thought – life without my stepfather.
Cancer bit him in the lungs and the stomach when he was forty-four. I was thirteen and had no clue yet. He fought for six long years – a constant battle within him. Honestly, it felt more like a decade. The first two years were the same; doctor visits, early treatment, special care, and a strict diet.
When I came from school at precisely one o’ clock – the time for his doctor visit – I’d ask him where he was going. He told me he was going for his afternoon walk. It was a promise he made with himself, to go for his afternoon walks thrice a week. And today’s the second time.
“Can I join you?” I asked, anticipating a yes this time.
“That’s sweet, Katie. But I prefer to walk alone.”
“Oh. Suit yourself.”
I walked past him without taking a second look. How much I must’ve broken his heart, I realised now. He went to the doctors on his own for those two years. And he always came home with my favourite apple crumble pie, a ten-minute walk to the café from the hospital when his body couldn't take the heat and he was out of breath. I stopped asking him if I could join him for his walks after four months of him indirectly saying no to me. Although, he never used the word “no”, but lots of “buts”, yes – lots of buts that lead to the nos.
With each passing year, he deteriorated in his appearance and mental health – he couldn’t help it – his body couldn’t with all those deadly cells spreading like wildfire. He lost a ton of weight too. I didn’t say anything – I figured it was the walks and convinced myself he was healthier but it was the exact opposite. I should’ve said something. I deferred my gut feeling. I blamed myself for a while. It wasn’t until the third year that he asked me to join him for his walks because he wasn’t allowed to go to the doctor visits by himself anymore. It was part of the procedure he had to oblige now.
Fifteen – I found out he was diagnosed with two types of cancer. It was also our first argument as a family. He said it wasn’t my burden to take. And I yelled at him for being selfish. But was he really? I don’t think so now. I yelled because I couldn’t understand – even now – why he couldn’t be honest with me when we lived under the same roof and he was my only guardian left back then. The chemotherapy started – twice a week – each session lasted up to three hours and he had to have someone accompany him home after that – me.
“Bring a book. You’ll get bored.” He instructed me, afraid that I might not go with him after the first session and the hospital would have to arrange a social worker as my replacement – his greatest fear. It didn’t happen. He was constantly worried over things that didn’t matter – like I did.
“Don’t worry about me,” I snapped back, unintentionally.
That shut him up even though I didn’t mean it like that – to rather worry about himself. Chemo is tiring; it messes with your head and slowly takes away who you are. And the last thing I wanted was for him to waste his mindfulness on my needs – but I was wrong – I should’ve let him. He’s gone now and he wouldn’t remember me eventually in his afterlife. When will he start paying more attention to himself? He never did because that was mum’s duty. My dad left us for another woman he’s been seeing for the past three years after mum gave birth to me on Christmas. My stepfather and my mum were friends since their school days. She was his first love. They tied the knot when I was five. Unfortunately, mum died five years later in a car accident in a snowstorm, which explains the rag doll – he wanted me to have something to hold on to – something to remind me of mum – something physical, if that helps.
The rag doll has red curly hair like mum. Mum was driving after work to the cake shop to pick up my birthday cake. She had placed an advanced order two days beforehand and she phoned home to tell me she’ll be home in another fifteen. The hospital called shortly after she hanged up and pronounced mum dead where they found her. My stepfather picked up the cake on her behalf and came home with a rag doll. He sang me a birthday song, ate the cake with me, and placed the rag doll beside me.
“Where’s mum?” I asked. “I don’t want this.” I caused a scene and tossed it aside.
“She’s not coming back. It’s just us now,” he answered, his voice breaking. “Happy Birthday, Katie.”
I wailed and he picked up the rag doll and hugged me with it – sobbing silently. It was the first and the last time I saw him cried. He never blamed anyone for his cancer, not even God, and he never complained once about the pain and the suffering. Not a single tear shed on his deathbed. He died in his sleep, holding my hand.
I sat by him during his chemo sessions. He pretends I’m not there. He pretends no one else was. I didn’t mind. He closed his eyes throughout. I never looked away from his face. I made sure I studied every last single detail. Something was urging me to look at him, when I still could and I’m glad I did. I don’t want to forget and I wouldn’t until I get amnesia – I’m sure of it.
It wasn’t until his last year of fighting cancer that he forgot who I was for a brief moment in the house. And that was when I knew I was losing him. No, I had lost him. He woke up and sat on his bed for a long time without saying a word. He lost all his hair by then and he was all sticks and bones. Whatever he wore became baggy and oversized. I bought him several caps during the second week of his chemo when he started experiencing hair loss and he thanked me, saying he was fortunate to have a daughter like me by his side. I used up all my tears that night.
I think it was because he knew one day this would happen; him having the slightest chance of forgetting me and it happening until he couldn’t even remember his own identity. I watched his back as he scratched the back of his head repeatedly, trying to make sense of it all. He stood up and walked around the house. He went into the kitchen and then out of it, doing this repeatedly for seven times and then he goes to my room and then his and he finally sat down on the dining table where I was also seated.
He glanced over at me and said, “Can you help me? I need to get home.”
And I looked him straight in the eyes with all my heart and soul.
“But this is home.”