My father passed away three weeks ago.
His cancer returned in May and I flew home for a few weeks to spend time with him and my mom. He had just completed a round of radiation therapy and was recovering his fitness. My mom was retiring early and they were hoping to go travelling together, bringing forward plans originally slated for my mom’s 70th birthday, still two years away.
When I left, only two months ago, all seemed well. But it hangs over everything. Every conversation. Each moment.
My dad’s sister visited from Australia six weeks ago and, again, everything seemed fine. Then the phone call and the hasty trip to South Africa.
I started writing my first novel, Tartarus One, when I was 12 years old on my father’s first computer. It was an IBM clone with a tiny green cathode ray screen. I wrote about 10,000 words before stopping. The story then was about a man who was unjustly imprisoned in a jail in space, who escaped by building a small craft, and crashed in central Africa before returning to exact vengeance.
It was a clever story but I realised quite quickly that the voice and approach I was writing in wasn’t my own. It was Stephen King’s. And I knew that wouldn’t do.
I tried off and on over the years but, unless one has a trust fund or a supportive, wealthy and understanding spouse, writing full-time is too expensive and the returns too insecure. I have always worked and never earned sufficient to give it a go.
Over the years Tartarus One became Tartarus Falls. The story evolved, became more complex, then simpler, then honed. But I never wrote it.
I arrived on Monday afternoon. He was in bed and hadn’t moved for a few days. He was thrilled to see me and my normally physically reserved father held my hand tightly as we spoke that afternoon. Him in short, exhausted bursts. Every word leaving him panting from the effort.
He didn’t look well. His face swollen and blotchy, pale. His skin cold, even though he said he felt warm. He couldn’t lift his arms, so I helped feed him, change him, drop water into his mouth with a syringe.
But he was cheerful. Chatty, even. He wasn’t in pain, except when we moved him.
He seemed to think that he could recover even from this. The nurse who arrived left me in no doubt how serious things were. He hadn’t urinated in days, his kidneys had stopped.
I’ve always worked hard and have taken tremendous risks with my ideas, ambitions and choices. Sometimes that worked, sometimes that didn’t. My life hasn’t been dull.
A year ago, with an awareness that life is shorter than one may hope but still long enough, I contacted a writer mate of mine. Jon Evans has written a few novels and even sold sufficient of them to pay for an expanded life-style, although he does keep a regular software job as well. He travels and writes and works.
Let’s go somewhere with a beach, sufficiently low-cost to keep us there a while, good internet access, and good diving, and let us each write a novel, I suggested. He thought it a good idea and we began hunting though island nations.
Cuba meets most criteria, except for being an evil Stalinist dictatorship. So the internet is crap. Papua New Guinea is just fucking expensive. Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand … either of us have already been.
That left the Philippines. Which consists of several hundred islands. Next question, which one?
My brother arrived on Tuesday. By then, my father could only speak a word or two before losing consciousness. I called the UK and let my wife speak to him.
They’ve always had a very special relationship, going to see cricket together at Lord’s in the UK. Could it be only a year ago that my wife made my dad run for a bus to get to the grounds?
“I love you dad,” she said.
My mom, my brother and I sat around the bed, playing music, telling stories, laughing, sometimes crying. We remembered.
My story, while being science fiction, happens to be set in Nigeria. Why? Well, when my hero escapes from an orbital jail which uses a space elevator to transfer goods and people, it has to be sited over the equator.
I was fortunate to have spent a month in Nigeria over this year, working on a local data transparency project for the Edo State government. I also took a few days to visit some of the places where the story happens. I found books on Efik culture and cuisine. I did my research, discovering I could make my villains much more terrifying than I had originally imagined.
I worked out the structure of the story, the set-pieces, the characters.
My sister-in-law and nephews arrived on Wednesday. He wasn’t able to speak anymore although, at least in the morning, he was able to acknowledge that he was still listening.
When I helped move him, or dress him, or feed him, I could see the dark splotches under his skin that must be part of the cancer spreading throughout his body. If a thing could be said to be evil, they looked it.
“Wait,” he would gasp. Short, stubby words. Every time we needed to move him.
Through the day, he got weaker.
Even as I booked my plane tickets and reserved accommodation, I was worried. What happens with my dad’s cancer? Would he live long enough for the book to be published? He was never much of a reader and the cancer meant that he couldn’t see very well, but he could know that it was written. That it was done.
I never expected the call to come so soon.
At 16h00 he asked me for peanuts. I put a little peanut butter on a teaspoon and he sucked it. Then he asked for cheese and onion chips. I couldn’t give him that. I placed some water in his mouth with the syringe.
He refused food at 17h00. Clamped his jaws shut and wouldn’t take anything. Then he slept, his mouth open, gasping.
I was already exhausted when I packed for Moalboal. I had just returned from South Africa, spending the night before working through my dad’s documents with my mom, helping her prepare for the accountants so they could settle his estate.
There had been no space to mourn yet and it would be another two weeks before I would get any rest. I still had a conference to prepare for in Geneva, several projects to close out, a number of proposals to write and submit, and a report to finish.
I stayed with him till 23h50. It had been three days since I last snatched more than a few hours of sleep and I left my mom alone with him.
She woke me at 00h28 on Thursday morning. I checked that he was no longer breathing, that his heart had stopped, and I covered him with a sheet.
We called the Chevra Kadisha and we sat quietly together. My brother, my mother, and me.
This morning I woke up with the sound of the ocean against the shore. Two-and-a-half days of travel behind me.
For the next four weeks, a novelist’s journey ahead.