Wednesday, 24 February 2016

A Quest for Life

The whole expanse of the world is stretching out before me - magnificent mountain ranges, deep lakes, interminable deserts, lush valleys, bustling cities and many long roads. But I am sitting alone on the concrete stairs outside my flat, on my street, in my city, feeling morose. The evening is quiet and I am craving adventure, yet seem to be wishing for it on my doorstep, where the likelihood of realisation is somewhat diminished. Since my father’s exasperated and drawn out death by breast cancer a month ago, much too torturous and stalled for his taste, my entire outlook on life has drastically altered. That is, whilst remaining the same in essence, my perception of its brutal truths has shifted. Seeing myself more lucidly, I've been forced to confront my naked and raw identity, which had until now been obscured by someone else’s ideals. With him gone, I was supposedly free to discover who I really was, and guiltlessly indulge my reckless side, my wildness and irresponsibility. My father gave moral structure and organised stability to our lives, upholding conformity and boundaries. These were harnessed by shackles, however, forged of loyalty and the need to please him. Mustn’t disappoint my ethical benchmark.

Moralistic he did not remain, however. At 71, my dad stunned his little tribe of three by confessing, first to his wife, then his two daughters, to an on-going affair with a mentally unstable colleague. My mother’s world was turned upside down, as was ours – was right still right, or was it now wrong? What, of all that we’d believed in, was still worth believing in?

Death, however, is the get out of jail free card for forgiveness, and callous cancer reifies the need to blame and punish, revealing petty hues. This new exonerating circumstance gave our anger permit to soften. We were able to experience a moment of grace with this man, seeing him for the first time as fallible, vulnerable, human. His dogmatic values of an inherited source no longer applied, allowing our timid hesitancy to be taken over by a confident sense of our own discretionary consideration. Taking care of him in the final months required non-wavering compassion, mixed with ruthless conviction of daily life-or-death decisions. Having my father’s life in my hands has been the single most powerful experience of my life, in the sense that any doubts I’ve ever had about my capacity to be a caring, loving person, responsible for another, have been thwarted. Now, at least, I had proof of the seed of good in me. Perhaps I am to be trusted, along with my instincts.

With the turmoil and chaos of my repeatedly deconstructed reality - firstly by the betrayal of trust, then by unconditional giving, and finally loss - I expected the finality of death, when it finally came, to serve as relief; a definitive remover of inhibitions, a tremendous motivator. I felt this was sure to be the moment of clear perspective, when I finally stand up renewed from the ashes, and pursue my true purpose. But here something was still undeniably blocked, like a corked barrel. My loss, my grief, only managed to shake the barrel and effervesce the contents. However the cork would not dislodge. I couldn’t understand what more was required to provide a final straw. I had realised that any significant change would not occur during the initial shock phase, and fully expected to have to wait it out. But the process of grieving had taken a disheartening turn, as the pain of losing my closest male friend, my ally in eye-rolling at family gatherings, my confederate in introspective nihilism, my enabler of the darkest of humour, intensified, rather than subsiding. The solid stability and core structure my dad’s presence bestowed upon my existence acted as a mould, without which the contents, jellylike and formless, spilled out, proving impossible to re-gather and reshape.

I felt paralysed, powerless and lost. Utterly unable to even begin relocating my path. All that I’ve managed to achieve since his death, in terms of real change, had been increased propensity towards self-destructiveness, a sense of listless aimlessness, and a desperate need to set my course for terra firma of my aspirational dreams. My jelly, it would seem, would inevitably have to form into an entirely new mould. Although what shape that mould would take, I had absolutely no idea.

This has not been my first encounter with cancer and its life-altering path of destruction. But unlike this current craving to surrender to spontaneous flights of fancy, eight years previously my adventure and travel lust pre-existed the illness. A round-the-world trip I was about to embark on had been recontextualised by these new circumstances in a way I could not have foreseen. What was meant to be a carefree expression of my newfound freedom, and transcendence into full blossom, became an introspective journey of darker hues. Or perhaps it was always going to shape up that way. You can plan and make provisions for the way forward, but after all, it’s the impulsive decisions, wrong turns and detours that eventually shape our lives, and rarely as predicted.

This time round, sitting on the stairs, I could not see over the edge of the bottomless hole I fell into. Alone and in the dark I summoned a route out.