The author and her dad (Photo: supplied)

To my father, alone in Middlemore

When Nadine Anne Hura’s father suffered a cardiac arrest she rushed to Auckland to be by his side. Now she sits on the other side of the city, waiting for him to come home.

Dear Dad

As I write this, you’re in the High Dependency Unit at Middlemore hospital and you keep asking what happened, but we can’t come and see you, and you can’t hold the phone, so all I can do is send up my words to cross this ruined city to be at your bedside.

Words can close this distance between us. Words can locate your misplaced memories and bring you home.

I’ll set off from Papakura. Down the Great South Road, picking up the southern motorway at Takanini and heading north. Take the exit west at Manukau, skimming past the airport where the distant horizon quivers.

You know where we are. You can name each and every road around here. You don’t need Google, you can thread your way across this city of bitumen in the dark. These roads built you. And you built them too. Shifting metal is in your blood, and it’s just as well that’s true.

If we keep going we’ll hit the Waterview tunnel: 2,400 kilometres of connective motorway from Mt Roskill to Pt Chev. This bypass was excavated to ease pressure around the city’s congested heart. For two years you worked here alongside the legendary, purpose-built borer called Alice. Alice was the most magnificent digger you had ever seen.

Remember?

How proud you were that day in 2015 when the tunnel finally opened. You rang to ask me if I’d watched it on the news. “Did you see it, daughter?!” you said.

But we can’t go that far.

Last night the nurse held the phone to your ear and you kept asking where everyone was. You were confused and your voice muddled. You were crying, as if you’d done something wrong. Why else was no-one coming to see you?

Kia kaha, Dad. Kia māia. We can’t come because they won’t let us through security. The risk of infection is too high. You have a broken sternum and several cracked ribs. And you are not the only one lying alone in hospital tonight. Whānau across the city sit at home and wait. No one is able to be there to catch hands and to hold them. We have to send up our karakia on the wind.

When you first drifted into consciousness in ICU, Mā said you whispered to her “Have I got the Covid? Am I going to die?”

No, Dad, it’s not the Covid.

It’s your heart. And lotto. Big Wednesday, alright! Couldn’t wait to get your hands on your winnings on Thursday morning – $62 and a bonus ticket. Mā told you not to go by yourself, but you wouldn’t listen. Taringa turi.

“Gonna get me some hāpuka,” you said, grabbing the keys. And the milk and the bread and a packet of smokes.

How long have you been playing those numbers? Ten years, 20? One time you sent Nella up to get your lotto and she asked why you don’t vary up your numbers, maybe get a different Powerball.

“Ack! Leave my Powerball alone,” you said.

And it’s just as well, too.

Earlier in the morning you’d stood at the doorway and waved as the boys and Nella headed out the door. Off at dawn to drive diggers and move stones around the city, same as you.

Normally you watch from the chair on the porch, coffee in hand. Nobody’s allowed to pull a sickie ‘round here, by jinkers. But, on this morning, for some reason, you didn’t go outside. Could you already feel your heart beating differently?

On the way back from the shops, a kilometre from home, you blacked out at the steering wheel. Cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack. A heart attack is a blockage, like a slip preventing access to the site. You can still get through, and you’ll be in pain, but you have time to call for help.

Cardiac arrest is like an earthquake. There’s no time. No warning at all. In an instant, you were buried by metal. Lights out. In the lap of the atua.

In the lap of the atua – and the literal hands of the community.

The first person following behind you was a nurse. Holy hackett, a nurse! She saw you go around the roundabout on a strange angle and watched your car ride up the curb and smash into a pole.

She was out of her car in a second. She opened your door and saw you were unconscious and not breathing. She looked over to the passenger seat where the milk, bread, and the lotto pouch lay. Whoever you were, she knew, you belonged to someone.

With help from two others, including a Countdown truck driver, you were moved onto the grass.

For nine minutes you received CPR from strangers. For nine minutes, the Counties-Manukau, locked-down, social-distancing community breathed into your lungs and pumped oxygen from your heart to your brain with the heels of their palms. Thirty compressions for each breath, a dozen rotations at least.

When the ambulance arrived, the paramedics brought out a defibrillator and laid a paddle on each side of your chest. One shock to locate your heart, another to flood it with light.

I have watched the TV show Life Flight, so I can picture it all too clearly. Every second critical. Every decision purposeful. The helicopter touching down, footsteps running, strapping you onto a stretcher, encouraging you, inserting breathing tubes – while the nurses and doctors in the ED at Middlemore prepared for your arrival. All those dedicated, diligent hands working together to hold you here, on this side of the veil.

I don’t know how we’ll ever thank them.

Behind Nella’s house, on a construction site next to the swamp, a pair of pied stilts have been brooding. I noticed them on the first morning after I arrived. We didn’t know your prognosis then. You were in a coma on life support in Intensive Care and we weren’t sure if you’d wake up; or if you did, how bad the trauma would be.

I got up at dawn to walk because who can sleep when the future hangs so precariously in the balance?

At first, I mistook the adult stilt for a juvenile. It was tooting insistently as if calling for a parent. I stopped to watch. A few metres away a mint-green digger was rumbling towards us with its bucket aloft. It was then that I saw two tiny chicks padding along the edge of a puddle. They were so slight they were almost translucent. The stilt wasn’t calling for its parent, it was calling to its chicks. It was both thrilling and terrifying.

A young couple pushing a pram walked past me and I waved towards the dirt and rock on the other side of the fence. “See the chicks!” I called. “See!”

The couple with the pram nodded politely and gave me a wide berth.

*

“Am I going to get through this?”

This is the first thing you asked when the breathing tube was removed. You were disoriented and hallucinating, focusing towards the ceiling. You frowned. “What’s my digger doing up there?”

Then you slipped away again, not so much sleeping as working. Scraping and loading and clearing. Your biggest job yet, on the most important site of your life: your own heart.

Did we choose this life, or did this life choose us? I have been asking myself this question every day since I got here. Invariably I stand at the barrier fence and I ask the stilts, too. The odds are stacked against them. Why nest here? On a pile of shingle surrounded by heavy machinery and predatory birds and building waste and prowling cats. It’s such a perilous place to take chances.

The stilts just toot at me. Move along, girl, they reply. We descend from dinosaurs.

These skinny birds with twigs for legs are more resourceful than I could ever be. They are resilient. They know how to survive in uncertain times. I googled them, and read that adult birds are known to feign injury, hiding one leg up inside its feathers so they appear vulnerable, thus drawing attention away from the nest. They will dive-bomb anyone who lingers. When a digger is nearby, the chicks freeze to avoid detection. Until they learn to fly, they stay close and come when called. They know they are protected under their parents’ wings. They will grow up and do the same for their own one day.

Maybe the question of choice is irrelevant.

*

My friend told me that community rescues like yours are rare. You were deprived of oxygen for so long that your chances of survival were worse than low. Giving CPR for that length of time is the ultimate test, not just of fitness, but of faith. I don’t know if I could have done it. I’m not even sure I would know how.

It’s been a week today and your progress has been remarkable. You have always been strong and resilient. But we have moved to another kind of waiting place: Coronary Care.

Still we cannot visit but I remind myself I’m lucky to be here at all. I was only granted entry at the border due to extenuating circumstances: to say goodbye to an immediate family member.

It’s brutal, but who knows where we might be if those borders weren’t in place?

Winning the Powerball comes down to luck, getting a ventilator in an emergency comes down to preparedness. There’s only a finite number of machines to keep people on life support. “Lucky” in this context takes on a totally new kind of meaning.

These are the precise kind of circumstances doctors want us to think about when they warn of an “overwhelmed medical system”. When it’s happening to your family, everything theoretical comes sharply into focus.

Nella told me your favourite song is ‘Going Home’ by Mark Knopfler. Which makes sense, because all you’ve talked about every day since you woke up is going home.

I also have to go home, back to the kids. I don’t want to, but this is the way of things. I worry about what will happen if I leave. Will the chicks survive, will you be OK, will we get through this?

I watch the vaccination rate and I worry. I try not to think about all the infections ducking and diving invisibly through this city with a target for those with the weakest defences.

Yesterday, I stood on a mound of dirt and waved out to the guy on the digger. He killed the motor and leaned towards me. “Keep an eye out over there!” I said. “There’s a family of pied stilts!”

He nodded and gave me the thumbs up.

What more can we do now but trust? Even when the odds are stacked against us, we have to have faith. Not just in the protection and wisdom passed down over centuries, but in each other. From those who work with karakia in te ao wairua, to the nurses and doctors in the wards, to the strangers on the street who stop to help others in need. From the digger driver on the construction site, to those who are every day overcoming their fear and distrust and getting vaccinated.

*

I know this letter is long, Dad, I hope Mā is reading it to you. I guess we’re different like that: your favourite song in the world has no words in it, I’m jammed full of them.

A week before your accident I had a dream that you were sitting beside me saying that you loved me, and you always did, and I woke up to the sound of a tūī calling.

One of the hardest things about losing Darren was not getting the chance to tell him we loved him one last time. When I got on the plane a week ago I thought we were going to lose you the same way.

But while you were suspended in that liminal space, your own father sent you back. “Hoki ki te kainga, e Pī,” Nanapā said. “You’ve got a family to look after.”

Taringa whakarongo.

And here you are. A triumphant conclusion to a quiet, brooding song. With a chest full of notes to play, people to call, Big Wednesdays to enter.

“I’m just gonna hang in there,” you told me last night by FaceTime. And it’s just as well, too.




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