Agnes and Pa

by Kylie Shelley

Agnes’ pa used to embarrass her. Even in ICU he embarrassed her—the scent of unwashed hair and old cigarettes, the tatts from his navy days and the answers she had to give the organ donation nurses. They couldn’t use his organs in the end but she kept his handprints and locks of hair in a sealed envelope, a tangible memory in shades of black, white and grey.

She had thought people in their fifties recovered from heart attacks. The news slowly trickled down to her, though—when he didn’t wake up; when the ECG showed that his heart had recovered but the EEG showed that his brain had not—that he would not. She was bouncing her one-year old boy on her knee. His head was resting on her rounded belly. She reminded the doctor that just hours after he’d been admitted—once his tubes were in and she’d been able to see him—when he’d heard her voice, her pa had tried to sit up. He had looked into her eyes with intention and tried to say her name. The doctor shook his head and looked out the aluminium framed window at an autumn blue sky.

The day before they turned his life support off, Agnes begged the nurse for more time. She shook her head. ‘Our first priority was saving his life, now our first priority is protecting his dignity. He wouldn’t want to live like this, would he?’ Both sets of eyes rested on Agnes’ pa. Agnes shook her head. He wouldn’t have, he’d said so himself. She took the nurse’s words—not tangible like the sealed envelope, but a sentiment from the time nevertheless—and hung on to them.

On the tenth day the sound of the Muslim call to prayer resonated throughout the city. It was part of an arts festival. Agnes got ready and drove to the hospital to the hum of the call. Once there she held her pa’s hands for the last time as the priest delivered his final rites. Watching his face fold, she thought of Sundays the most. Sometimes they had gone to church. Mostly they had drunk tea, played records and piled crumpled linen into the wicker washing basket. Once it had been washed they had hung it out and let it dry in its own time. She had loved breathing it in when it was all windswept.

Hospital white curtains offered them a private enclosure to face death in. The curtains breathed deeply as the nurse, head bowed, closed them. Agnes held her pa as he took his final breaths. They were shallow, shaken and laboured. Almost as soon as his life support was turned off, they stopped. Agnes’ cries were high pitched and orphaned, contorted by filaments of disbelief. They—father and daughter—became continents separating; landmasses that had been interlocked for as long as she had lived, shifting involuntarily as the Earth rotated around them.