you & me

What Grief Can Do to the Heart: Reflections on My Dad and the Power of Now.


It was Father’s Day 2015, and it was midnight. Winter had struck Cape Town hard, and I was wearing the same outfit that I had for days.

Every night washed, every day a small variation, every night tumble-dried. Ain’t no time for fashion in Intensive Care Units. And comfort trumps style, any day.

I was at home with mom, and sitting up by the fire (I think). Or reading in her bed? Grief makes you foggy.

In those three weeks, I shared her bed, to comfort us both and so we could be together in case the call from the hospital came (he is dying/he has died). My sister (Andrea) was struggling to even enter his ICU room, which was isolated and meant we had to put on sterilized outfits to go in. She found it frightening, and so stayed outside.

Andrea messaged me that night. It was 11 pm. She was frightened. And I reassured her, because I didn’t really think he could die (could he?) and I told her it would be fine. And offered for us to go and wish him Father’s Day together. I had been at the hospital earlier in the day, but somehow, I missed him more every night, especially around midnight. Imagining him alone, attached to machines, outside of visiting hours.

I found the outside and its waiting room scary, and I liked the comfort being next to Dad gave me. His breathing, the beep of the machines, the classical music I played. And reading to him, from Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now) — well, maybe it was for us both, because every day and breath for him was critical and in the now. For me, well, how could I imagine past the present moment or hour?

I had managed to secure the code for the ICU door, and I came and went as pleased. My confidence meant no nurse challenged me. I gave them all a lot of love, but it was selfish love. I was grateful to them, but I mainly wanted to get in the door and be with Dad without anyone booting me out. Also, I wanted them to give him the best care.

And they did, but he still died.

So back to that night, which is a beautiful kind of tragic memory. I fetched my sister. We went together, and bravely (I think, grief blurs memory) opened his ICU isolation room and in we went. I added extra cheer to my voice that night, because she needed it, and we sat down.

I knew she was new to the room, so I did what I always did and chatted to Dad, and put on music and adjusted things. What did I adjust? I honestly don’t know. It could have been his ankle and wrist ties (to stop him from pulling out his tubes when fitting, from panic at having a tracheotomy) or it could have just been putting a cool hand on his often-hot forehead.

Andrea was so nervous. It broke my heart. Because, it was just us three, just like we used to be, in the lounge chatting. Except now Dad (or as she called him, Papa) was silent, and of course ICU is not the same as Dad sitting upright with a glass of shiraz.

So instead of what you’d expect, the tears, we told him all about the phone upgrade he was getting for Father’s Day. It would take much better pictures, we said, and he would be the coolest astronomer on the block.

Then she did something that made me laugh. She played him a song from her phone. Not the classical crap I played, or Leonard Cohen, but a cheesy pop song called Fight Song by a Rachel Platten. And his oxygen levels increased! I laughed so much. I had been so carefully curating healing music which I played to him endlessly, and yet now his stats seemed better off from crappy pop tunes.

Later, we left. I forget how many times I told her he would be okay, he was doing so well. Past 1 am, I crawled into mom’s bed, which was really dad’s side of it, and somehow slept. The next early morning arrived, and with it, the usual call to the nurses: Is he okay? How was the night? When can we come?

Later and now, I realize it would never be okay. And I am so desperately sad. I miss him so. I miss telling him about everything that’s going on in my world. Our couch chats, in the lounge. Endless, endless. Universes of talking and understanding one another.

Since he has died, I drink more wine. I don’t remember drinking wine as much with him. Of course, we had wine. And a fire. But not the way I drank wine after he left. And that mellow Merlot feeling just doesn’t bring me the comfort and joy his company did.

Waves, and waves, and waves of grief hit me today. 26 months ago, in three days. Fuckity fuck. I would pay 5000 pounds to spend 10 minutes again with him in ICU. Even if I was mute, listening to those blasted monitors telling me his vitals, which used to crash often.

Oh, what grief can do to the heart is unspeakable. There are no words.

Except now I trust the grief-ocean-waves to crash over me but to eventually pass. They do, yet they still drench me, but I know the wave is just a wave now. The space around my achy-breaky heart is wider. The sadness is as intense, but the heart muscles are stronger now. And I think dad is proud of me. It is the bravest thing I have done, and I often sense he sees me, and sees my heart, and understands.


Alex O’Donoghue is a South African Irish 30-something. She has just broken through her fear of writing and being judged. In the courage light, she is starting to submit her voice. She loves cats, coffee, learning to be embodied, and community of high-quality people. She has a weird laugh, laughs a lot and can’t click. You could contact her via Miss Muse.


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