Remember that I love you most

When my father stopped breathing on August 16, I was by his side.

The author holding the hand of her dying father
[Courtesy of Belen Fernandez]

The day before I found out that my father was dying, a dead cat appeared on the bottom step of the staircase in the apartment building where I was staying. It was late July, and I had rented a summer place in Fethiye, a town on Turkey’s southwestern coast where I had been a regular visitor since 2004.

Fearing that this was probably some sort of apocalyptic omen relating to my own life, I fought the urge to google “what it means when you see a dead cat”. When I finally did, it seemed there were a couple of possibilities. Seeing a dead cat could be “a symbol of death and rebirth”, Google said. Or it could be an apocalyptic omen.

The next day, my mother called to inform me that my dad had commenced in-home hospice care in Washington, DC, and that the end was near. His doctors at the hospital had been dispensed with, having shown themselves to be irremediably committed to the American way of pursuing profit at the expense of human wellbeing. My father’s final two chemotherapy treatments, which he had been reluctant to undergo, had done nothing to deter his prostate cancer and everything to ensure that his remaining moments on earth were spent in pure agony.

I began making preparations to travel to Washington, DC, my birthplace and the command centre of the country I had spent the past 20 years avoiding at all cost, having long ago diagnosed the United States as a downright sick land and disproportionately anxiety-inducing.

I continued my one-hour morning swims in the Turkish Mediterranean, which I undertook for sport rather than leisure. The butterfly stroke proved to be the least compatible with sobbing, and the combination was presumably even less advisable when one had just consumed a bottle of wine for breakfast.

Swimming was but one of many recurring activities on the daily to-do lists that I manically scribbled across loose sheets of paper – a genetic inheritance, apparently, from my father himself, whose relationship with grocery lists often bordered on the obsessive-compulsive.

In the days following the news of his imminent death, my list-making became even more neurotic, perhaps out of a need to project control over the universe in the face of a fatherless future. I made lists everywhere, and then lists of all the lists I had made.

Meanwhile, the otherworldly blue of the sea provided the visual backdrop as my mind prepared itself to think of my dad in the past tense.

The memories came at me as I swam: How he had taken me camping and had carved our initials into a tree. How he had rescued me from the nest of wasps in which I had landed after falling off the back of my horse. How he would scold me for conspiring to give him a heart attack by hitchhiking and then boast to everyone else about my international hitchhiking exploits. How he could never go to the grocery store or anywhere else without acquiring a captivated audience for his animated stream-of-consciousness tales about Cuba or Spain or his genius baby grandson or Herodotus or Jimi Hendrix or Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

Fethiye, as it so happened, was one of my father’s preferred destinations since he first visited me there in 2007, and he delighted in exercising his Turkish vocabulary words: “stop”, “go”, “iyi bayramlar” (happy holidays), “kanalizasyon” (which he learned by inspecting the sewage drain markings in the street). He would visit the local cemeteries, and report back on the number of people with the surname Kurt (his own middle name) therein.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, my father drafted many a list with plans for an eventual family boat excursion in Turkey during which we would, inter alia, revisit the rope swing over the water where he had once defied his 60-plus years and cannonballed into the sea.

I flew to the US from Turkey on August 10 for what would turn out to be my dad’s last five days of life. During this brief period of time, he stopped eating almost entirely and lost the ability to speak – a true curse for someone accustomed to emitting as many words in a day as I do in a decade.

My mother would bathe him, shave him, and carry him to the bathroom, until it was no longer possible to move him at all. He was reduced to howling in pain and my mom was reduced to acute devastation, compounded by the realisation that the US healthcare system had prematurely killed her companion of more than half a century.

I sat on the bed next to my dad, holding his hand and feeling myself suspended in a time warp in which it was impossible to even think about making or executing any sort of plan. He himself managed one final list, which I transcribed for him. It was a list of passengers for a 2024 boat trip off the coast of Turkey: my brother, my mother, my uncle and me, plus a few family friends.

The trip came with instructions: to scatter his ashes by the rope swing.

Shortly before my father died at home in Washington, DC, I came across a letter on my mother’s desk that was dated September 21, 1988. It was from my dad to my brother and me – we were three and six at the time – and had been penned during one of his periodic bouts of existential anxiety when he would convince himself for no reason that he was dying.

In case he didn’t get the chance to watch us grow up, he wrote, he wanted to impart some advice: “Wake up happy every morning, don’t waste your lives worrying or making lists, and remember that I love you most.”

When my dad stopped breathing on August 16, I was by his side. And for the first time in a very long time, I felt – if not peaceful – then at least the potential for peace.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.