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The Sunday EssayNovember 5, 2023

The Sunday Essay: Twenty-five years


Death had become our constant companion; always in the corner, waiting.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Images by Teresa HR Lane.

It was late on a Thursday in August last year when my brother messaged me from Hong Kong.

Dad’s been rushed to hospital in
an ambulance. I don’t have any
more details than this. I’m on my
way there now. Will update as
soon as I know more.

The time difference between Hong Kong and New Zealand was about five hours. I called him straight away. His voice was level, but I knew my brother; I could hear the control in his words. He was holding it together for all of us. He was the first born and this was his responsibility.

“We’re in a taxi on our way. I don’t know what’s happened. I’ll call you when I get there — I promise.”

The family group chat was blowing up. My aunt was on her way to the hospital in another taxi, my father’s partner updated which ward they were in. I had been up late working on my novel and was on a Zoom with my writing friend. I turned my video on.

“Jana?” Her face popped into view on the screen. “I have to go. I think my father’s dying.”

For the next few hours, I waited. It was a familiar feeling. My sister-in-law called to update me when they reached the hospital — it didn’t sound good. He hadn’t been well all day and now he couldn’t breathe. They wanted to intubate him, but he was arguing with the doctors. Of course he was arguing with them. He wanted to be transferred to his hospital where he ran the Allergy Centre and knew the doctors, but it was too risky. Finally, after 45 minutes, he agreed to be intubated. 

During the procedure he went into
cardiac arrest. They managed to
intubate him and resuscitate him.
They’re trying to take him to ICU
and stabilise him.

My husband scoured the internet for the first flight to Hong Kong. My uncle had just woken up in California and didn’t know what was going on. I rang him and told him the news. His voice dropped to just above a whisper. He stammered, trying to find the words — any words. My mother phoned from London and told me she was praying.

My brother called with more updates. His condition was getting worse.

“Is Dad going to die?”

“The doctors said that they’re going to do everything they can to save his life.”

If you get to see Dad, will
you tell him I love him,

Of course.
I told him. He opened his eyes
and looked at me when I said it.

I was 10, shivering in my London school playground at the top of the slide, looking at the clock above the school doors.

“My dad’s having throat cancer surgery right now,” I said.

“Don’t think about it.” I had three friends sitting around me, propping me up. Their bodies were warm, pressed against mine.

“What if he dies.”

“He won’t. Stop it. Let’s go play in the Wendy House.”

They slid down the slide one by one, grey tunics rumpled against their dark stockinged legs.

“Come on, let’s go.”

Three little faces like full moons stared up at me. I looked up at the clock again. The minute hand ticked forward. I slid down the slide.

His surgery was a success, they said. But when my mother took me to see him, all I could think was how small he looked lying in his hospital bed, tubes coming out of him, a large white bandage taped across his throat. This wasn’t my giant of a father; this was someone frail and unwell.

He waved at me from his bed and wrote silly messages on the white board he held in his hands (“Any boyfriends yet?”), but he had fundamentally changed. He was no longer our protector but someone we had to protect.

Back then, we processed by moving forward. There was no time for grief and wallowing, we had to prepare for life post-cancer. We were now a family who had felt death’s breath on the back of our necks. At night, I imagined every possibility without my father. Would we be poor now? Would my mother remarry? Would we have to sell our West London house?

It took months for him to recover. I came home from school one day and he was shuffling up and down our garden in a robe and hospital gown, holding onto a stand with an IV bag. I could see him from the conservatory windows, stopping to inspect the baby cherry tree my mother had planted for him when we first moved into our home; standing at the end of the cracked stone path, looking towards the pond he had spent years filling with goldfish, only for them to be gobbled down by the local heron.

He had been obsessed with filling that pond full of life. At one point, there were koi — three of them — but the pond was too small, and they had died. We even had two terrapins, but one escaped, and the other kept killing all the remaining fish. My father had retrieved the killer terrapin with a net, put it in a box, then walked with me to the park around the corner. He lifted me over the fence by the ponds and instructed me to release the murderous aquatic turtle. Years later, I’d regularly see a colony of terrapins clustered on top of the rocks in the park’s waters, basking in the sun: extended necks exposing red stripes on either side, heads reaching up, eyes closed.

When he came into the house, stepping carefully in his slippered feet, I hugged him, but not too tightly. I was afraid that if I was too rough, he’d snap in two.

“Dad’s coming home soon,” my mother said. “Won’t that be nice?”

It took a moment for me to understand. He was already home, wasn’t he? But no, she meant he would be coming home permanently. I had somehow adjusted to this new normal — my father lived in the hospital, my mother made us breakfast, took us to school, and then made us dinner. A tiny part of me didn’t want him to come home, to bring death closer to our family again; I could see his shadow walking alongside my father, and it scared me.

Now dinner was a fraught affair, the three of us — my mother, brother, and I — eyes down when my father inevitably choked on his food or drink, pretending everything was fine. He didn’t want us to fuss, pushing away hands that patted his back, turning his body from us as he spat the offending food into napkins or handkerchiefs.

My mother massaged meat with baking soda to make it more tender, but still my father couldn’t chew it. We all strained to understand his slurred speech. The spray bottle of artificial saliva by the front door became a familiar sight, as did the flat wooden lollipop sticks he stacked together and inserted into his mouth at night, an exercise prescribed by his physiotherapist. He always smelled both sweet and sour; sickly. He lost weight drastically, becoming half the man he had once been.

The scar on his throat and across his chest was dark red and angry. Over the years, it would fade to white. Once, on holiday in Sydney and walking along Bondi Beach, my father pulled his shirt open to expose his chest, and exclaimed, “Cor! That shark really got me!”

In my early teens and easily embarrassed, I tried to pull his shirt closed, to cover him back up. He laughed and did it again, louder.

I was in my twenties when we discovered that his radiotherapy had been too strong; it had dissolved some of the bone in his jaw, leading to his issues with chewing and swallowing. My father — once a great orator — struggled to be understood as his speech deteriorated further. I was always worried that people wouldn’t understand him, that they’d be shocked by his appearance; I warned them before they met him. I became his secret translator, whispering his words to others, feeling ashamed for taking my father’s dignity from him, for having to re-tell his jokes and ask his questions.

He went to the dentist for extensive dental surgery, then back to the hospital when he developed an abscess. He moved back to Hong Kong and the treatments continued. He was fitted with a percutaneous endoscopic gastronomy tube — a feeding tube which went directly into his stomach through an opening in his upper abdomen. He organised the bottles of calorie shakes in neat lines on his desk, though he was intensely private about using them. He went back to the hospital again when he lost circulation in one of his toes and needed an operation in his leg. He developed Raynaud’s Syndrome, the tips of his fingers always grey blue. He wore gloves lined with rabbit fur. He was always cold.

Every time he went in with a new affliction, I held my breath, wondering if this was the last time he’d come out of the hospital. Death had become our constant companion; always in the corner, waiting.

When my first nephew was born in the UK, my father flew from Hong Kong to meet him — the first born of the first born; a new generation. After the day spent with the new family, where my father gifted the week-old baby with a silver spoon, we returned to the B&B where we were staying together.

There was a bar and a comfortable living room with a fire. His vodka martini arrived. He took a sip and sighed, long and deep. 

“The alcohol helps me speak,” he said.

It may have been something he had told himself over the years — he was rather partial to a drink — but that evening, his speech really was clearer.

“What do you really miss eating?” I asked. I’d never spoken to him about his cancer, though he had spoken at length about it to others.

He set his drink down. “There’s nothing more I want in life than to eat a big, juicy hamburger.” His hands were held out in front, grasping the imaginary burger. I could see it, could almost see the juice dripping down his forearms. “But I can’t.” His hands fell back into his lap and the burger disappeared. He shrugged and picked up his drink again.

I put my arm around his shoulder. “I wish I could make you something.”

It was ironic — as a child he had taught me the joy of good food, introducing me to delicacies like foie gras and caviar. I had become a professional chef because of my love of food. But my father had never been able to eat anything I’d cooked.

He patted me on the knee and nodded. I could feel his cold hands through my jeans. Death stirred my father’s drink for him over his shoulder. 

He flew to New Zealand and walked me down the aisle at my wedding. It was a hill, really. My husband and I got married in a vineyard in Wanaka, and I wondered the whole way if I’d trip and fall, tumbling down the grass towards my future in a ball of white lace.

My father’s suit was a little too big for him. He never managed to get the hang of how to dress for his smaller frame after his cancer. I held onto his arm as we walked down the hill towards the marquee. I couldn’t see my husband yet.

“Is it weird to be marrying off your last child?” I asked.

He didn’t reply for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah. A bit.”

“Are you relieved, though?”

There was no pause this time. “Definitely. About time.”

I laughed, holding onto his arm tighter. “I can’t see him yet, can you?”

“Not yet. Why? Are you worried?”

“A bit.”

“Don’t worry.” He squeezed my hand. “He’ll be there.”

At the reception, he gave a speech about my achievements in life and my husband’s love and support. When I cried, he looked over at me and said, “Don’t cry yet — I haven’t got to the good stuff.”

But looking around the room, nobody else was reacting the way I was. They couldn’t understand him. When he finished his speech, he raised his glass and I stood up and matched him, a signal to the rest of the room. Later, I emailed his speech to our guests, so that they would know what he had said, so that they would understand his love for me; so that they would know what a great speaker he used to be.

Death stayed away at our wedding, left off the carefully curated guest list. I didn’t even think to look for him.

“There’s a flight to Hong Kong tomorrow morning at 10am,” my husband said. “But when we get there, we’ll have to go through quarantine for a week, so we won’t even be allowed into the hospital.”

Thanks to Covid, we hadn’t been able to see him for three years. I had a flight booked for October — our first reunion. He had been planning on coming to Wellington for my MA graduation the following May.

“I don’t think we should book it, yet.” I was clutching my phone, waiting for more messages, more calls. Every time it buzzed, I could feel the dread in my stomach snaking its way a little further up my throat.

“Okay. If he pulls through, they’ll probably keep him in the hospital for a bit, so we may want to be out there for longer, anyway.”


“Should I pack my bag?”

“You can. But maybe you should try to sleep, or at least rest.”

I’m preparing myself at this
point to not be able to see

Prepare for worst but hope for
the best. That’s all we can do.

We got into bed. I texted a couple of friends, filling them in. I couldn’t sleep — how could I? Death smoothed the covers of my bed and made himself comfortable beside me.

It was nearly 4am when my phone rang again.

“There’s one last procedure they’re going to try, but it’s risky. I’ve discussed with the doctors, and we’ve decided that we’re going through with it, because there is no other choice — it’s our only option. I’ll let you know when it begins.”

Have they started the

I had barely pressed send when my phone rang. I sat up in bed. “Hey.”

My brother didn’t say anything. My heart thudded in my ears, phone pressed tight against it, hand clammy. I could hear the hospital behind him, a whirring machine on the other side of the world. He cleared his throat.

“He fought so hard.”

I think I cried out. I think I shouted, “Oh god, no,” and doubled over in the bed, screaming. I think my husband sat up beside me, his hand on my back.

“He fought so hard,” my brother repeated. His voice cracked. “He’s… Dad’s passed. He’s passed.”

There were no words, nothing in my lungs but an endless wail. I think he explained that they started the procedure and he went into cardiac arrest again. That they couldn’t bring him back. I couldn’t breathe. Death put his arms around me and held me tight. His hand reached into my chest and squeezed my heart.

“They’re saying we can go in. I’ll call you back, okay? I love you. I love you.”

My hands shook. I stabbed at my phone’s screen. I had to call everyone. I had to let them know. I tried to ring my oldest friend, all the way in Brighton, and my closest friend in Wellington on holiday in France, but then my brother was calling again.

“I’m in here with Dad. Do you want me to put the phone on speaker so you can say something to him? Would you like that?”

Hey love, did you mean
to call? I’m just on my
way back from the airport.
Text me if you wanna chat.
I’ll call as soon as I get in xx

I didn’t want that. I didn’t want everyone in the room to hear me talking to my dead father. I didn’t even know what I was going to say.

“Can you… can you just hold the phone up to his ear?” I got out of bed and went to sit on the stairs. My toes were cold. One of the cats had followed me. She nudged her head against my back then lay beside me, kneading my thigh with her paws. On my other side, death linked his fingers with mine and rested his head on my shoulder.

“Yeah, sure. OK, I’m going to do that now. OK, ready?”

Shuffling sounds. Silence. I don’t remember exactly what I said. I know I said I was sorry. I know I said I loved him. I know I said I’d be heartbroken forever. And then I didn’t know what else to say, had to stop talking because of the absurdity of the situation, the image of my brother holding his phone up to a corpse’s ear.

All I could think was: He’s gone. He’s gone and I can’t talk to him again. I can’t hug him again. He’s gone.

He didn’t make it.

My brother and I planned his funeral together — he’d made it easy for us by telling us everything he wanted, right down to the version of It’s Time to Say Goodbye he wanted played during the ceremony (“a good recording of Andrea Boccelli and Sarah Brightman. In Italian”). We joked that we’d bring his favourite gin and “pour one out for Dad”. I chose a reading, and my brother drafted his eulogy. We worked through his list of wishes and wrote his notices of death — one to be circulated to friends and family, one published in The Times, the other in The Guardian. We fielded messages from friends and colleagues, loving tributes from afar.

“I’ve been preparing for this for a while,” my brother confessed on the phone. “I knew that when the time came, it would be my job to write his eulogy and deliver it. Not just because I’m the first born of the first born, but because I wanted to.”

“Honestly, I’ve been preparing for him to die since I was 10.”

Exactly. Other people don’t get that.”

“But you know what? Even though I’ve been preparing for 25 years, I wasn’t ready.”

He sighed. “No. None of us were.”

There was a lesson in there somewhere, but my heart was too broken to find it. 

I looked around, but for the first time in 25 years, death no longer hovered so closely.

Keep going!