Taking the lead

The phone rings at twenty minutes past eight in the morning. It’s a call I’ve been expecting but one I didn’t want to get. With a trembling hand, I pick up the receiver and hold it to my ear. My brother’s voice, strained and subdued, crackles down the line. 

“It’s Dad,” he says, “I know you were planning on coming tomorrow but you should come today.”

My throat constricts into a single whispered word, “Oh..Okay.”

“Don’t hurry yourself. You’ve got plenty of time but… come today,” he tells me. 

He hangs up and I stand motionless in the kitchen. The phone dangles uselessly in my hand, the dial tone dull and beeping. 

I blindly look out the window at the glowing morning sky. A fantail flits jumpily passed the glass and my brother’s words echo in my head: Don’t hurry. Come today. Not tomorrow. Plenty of time. It’s a chilling contradiction that leaves me suddenly unable to move. 

A panic snatches in my chest, rising up and up until an involuntary sob escapes my throat. I convulse. The garbled sound releases my petrified body and my limbs start to move without proper instruction. With numb fingers I grab some clothes, stuffing them into a bag. It’s only later that evening I’ll discover I didn’t pack any trousers. 

I pick up the phone again and in a wooden voice ask the neighbour to look after the kids. After three goodbye kisses on soft bowed foreheads, I’m closing the car door and backing out of the driveway. It’ll take me three hours to get to Dunedin.

I turn onto the main road and merge into the morning traffic. I know I’m in a convoy with Death, the question is, am I in the lead or in second place? If I’m behind, is there still time to overtake? Plenty of time, my brother’s words play over again in my mind, loud and reverberating. I shake my head, push my foot down on the accelerator and drag my attention back to the road. 

It’s a road I’ve travelled many times before, many times with Dad. I drum my fingers on the cool steering wheel and exhale a breath of hot air. A heavy silence fills the car and I shiver as memories start to seep in through the air-conditioner. 

The first memory that takes the passenger seat is the time Dad insisted he drive me to the hospital when I was pregnant. He drove me for each and every one of my scans. 

“The roads are too icy,” he’d say in a don’t-agrue-with-me tone, “I’ll drive you.”

That was Dad alright, always sounding practical. Like he was doing me a favour but I knew better, I knew he secretly wanted to come. I knew because his face would light up each and every time he saw the ultrasound. His deep brown eyes would be glued to the screen with delight. He thought it was a marvel of technology, seeing his granddaughters growing month by month inside my tummy. Each time, Dad would squeeze my hand, point at the blurred childlike shapes on the screen, and in an awed whisper say, “Look at that!” 

The white centreline on the road stretches out like a roll of tape and the unwanted passengers continue to climb aboard. I suddenly see Dad rushing to greet us at the airport. We’d just returned home from Brisbane and he was about to meet his grandson for the first time. He reached us, panting and out of breath. I didn’t even get a ‘Hello’; the wee boy in my arms had captured Dad’s full attention. I remember watching the two of them gazing at each other, Grandad and Grandson, with matching eyes and identical grins. Dad bought Ben a tiny All Blacks rugby shirt and I carried my own bags out of the airport that day. 

Trees and towns zip past and I know I’m making good time. The road is clear but the memories keep me in uncomfortable company. Filling up the backseat like a band of freeloading hitchhikers, I feel cramped. Looking for an escape, I glance in the rearview mirror but it’s no use. In its oblong reflection, I see us on the windswept beach at Aramoana, scooping buckets of sand to make crumbling castles with seashell drawbridges. Our shoulders are red and burnt from too much sun. The water always coming at the end of the day to wash away our temporary kingdom. 

My eyes blur and the memories fast forward. We’re at Mum and Dad’s place in Alexandra. The dull rain trickles down the window panes and laughter is ringing through from the kitchen. I walk in, asking what’s so funny, only to find my three children grinning. Their lips smeared with raspberry jam and their fingers sticky with whipped cream. Dad is wearing a pink apron and holding up a spatula. 

“I’m teaching them the pikelet dance,” he’d said matter of factly. 

Every turn in the road reveals another memory and I struggle to stay focused. One after another after another after another, the memories start to yell over the top of each other. They clamber and lurge over the backseat towards me. Blending, merging, ballooning, they start to chant, don’t forget, don’t forget, don’t forget, don’t forget. A sinking feeling clutches my stomach as I realise that Dad and I, we’re out of time: there’ll be no new memories after today. 

Hot unwanted tears spring into my eyes. Sobs erupt from deep in my chest and the tarmac blurs. Without warning, my tires skid on gravel, making me jerk the steering wheel and swerve. I need to pull over. I have to breathe. I maneuver the car to the side of the road and flick my hazard lights on. Gulping for air, I press my fists into my eyes but the leaking taps won’t stop gushing. I stay there, collapsed in my seat, the memories piling on my chest, pushing me down. 

After ten full minutes, my brother’s voice rings clearly again in my mind, cutting through the cacophony of chanting reflections. He’s telling me it’s time to go. That I can’t let Death take the lead. I force myself to sit up and with a white shaking hand start the engine. I pull back out onto the road and, winding down the window, flush my unwanted passengers out. 

An hour or so later, I find myself arriving at the hospital car park and pulling into an empty space. Looking up, I count the rows of windows until I reach the fifth floor; Dad’s floor. A shadow flashes over the glass and I see a small fantail fly across the edifice and then up towards the clear blue sky. Time is running out. 

 The main hospital doors slide open and the smell of disinfectant instantly assaults my nose. Moving past the reception, I make a beeline for the elevator. Jabbing the ‘up’ button repeatedly, my foot taps on the lino. I watch the numbers eventually count down to the ground floor. Once inside, I punch the button for the fifth floor, set my mouth into a firm line, and watch the heavy metal doors close.

The elevator is slow and silent. I stare transfixed at my shoes to avoid making eye contact with the other sombre riders. With an irritating ding, the elevator stops at each level to let people in and out. Impatience flashes hot across the back of my neck until the cart finally arrives on the fifth floor. 

I cut down the corridor in large strides, heading straight for room E14. As I get closer though, dread pours into my ankles like concrete and my feet begin to drag. I try to draw out my arrival until I reluctantly have to place a hand on the cold metal doorknob. 

Twisting it open, I step through into the room. My brother, Rod, turns in his seat and jumps to his feet when he sees me. He rushes over, pulling me into a rough hug, his woolly jumper scratching at my cheek. We don’t speak. Tears well in my eyes and a white hot pain sears my heart. I hold onto him, burying my face in his shoulder. 

After a moment, Rod motions towards the hospital bed where Dad is lying asleep. A faded pink blanket is pulled up high over his chest. It’s cheerful colour is at odds with Dad’s grey complexion. 

I take a seat next to him and watch his chest rise and fall. Each time he takes a breath something inside him rattles. He doesn’t stir when I place my hand on his arm. It’s cool to touch and feels like wax. His cheeks are sunken and his skin hangs loosely on his tall frame. I gaze at Dad, lying frail and shrunken, his body ravaged by sickness and I wonder for the first time if beating Death here was really worth it. 

Time passes with the movement of shadows across the room. I’m stiff from sitting for hours and Rod has nodded off in the chair across from me. I stare out the window and watch white clouds roll across the sky in an endless stream. The clock on the wall counts the hours while medical machines hum softly in the background, an undercurrent to remind us Dad is still one of the living. 

Every so often, a nurse will enter the room. They don’t try to reassure us in bright false voices and I’m grateful for it. They know we’re here to say goodbye and so go about their business with precision, staying only as long as they need to, before retreating back out into the corridor. Once they’ve closed the door quietly behind them, we resume our subdued vigil.

It’s late evening and Dad is still sleeping when a shadow catches the corner of my eye. Lifting my head up from a tatty waiting-room magazine, I turn and see the fantail has returned. Flying it’s way past the window, I stare at it as it moves back and forth across the glass. Dipping and diving in and out of sight. I frown slightly and move closer to get a better look. 

As I approach, the fantail arcs away from the building and then swoops forward like a pendulum. I gasp, thinking it’s going to smash right into the window but at the last second it switches direction and swoops upward and out of sight. Moments later it reappears, to start its swooping routine again. It’s time to say goodbye. 

I walk over to the bed and tap Dad on the shoulder, waking him. I take his hand and squeeze it tight while pointing to the window.

Dad’s glazed eyes flutter open and track my finger over to the window pane. The fantail flits back and forth, up and down in an entrancing kind of dance. Dad’s eyes light up when he sees the wee bird and a weak smile spreads across his thin lips. The fantail puffs its yellow chest and flattens out it’s tail feathers, shaking side to side. Dad and I sit there, admiring the creature’s strange mid-air waltz and in an awed whisper I say, “Look at that!”

After a few minutes, the bird beckons to us and then dives cleanly out of sight. Dad lets out a soft long-drawn sigh and his hand quietly relaxes in mine. I look over at him and watch his eyes droop closed.

My lip trembles, the fantail departs, and Dad follows its lead. 

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