Not immortal, after all

My father died on the 17th June, 2017. He probably would have quite liked that, a palindromic date. He died in Berlin, on the commemoration day of a riot against communist rule in 1953. It’s the sort of date people like to choose for weddings. He will be buried on the 7th July, which also has a nice symmetry to it. Unfortunately, that is the only thing that is nice about the manner of his death.

He told us six months ago that he had an abdominal aortic aneurysm. He needed surgery to repair it, and after much deliberation on his part, it was scheduled for the 4th July. I remember thinking about the risks involved in either having or not having the surgery, and even though both options can result in death, it seemed so abstract to me, like a bit of bad luck that would only happen to other people. People always think they’ll win the lottery, but not die in a car accident. His body created a rather similar effect to a catastrophic car accident, all on its own, when his aorta ruptured on the 15th June. He lost his entire blood volume in the ambulance, and after much entirely pointless and repulsive medical intervention, he died two days later at about 10 pm. We were sitting in a bar called Dollinger on Stuttgarter Platz when we heard that he had died. The name of one of the surgeons was Dollinger, which was a coincidence he would have laughed at. Maybe the other version of him is sitting there, in some parallel universe, on the terrace of a cafe, with the other version of me, and laughing his rather German laugh, which often came complete with slapping thighs and bashing the table.

It’s no doubt universal that when your parents die, you feel that somehow your childhood never existed, as if death negates the past, even though it is just as much alive in your memory as it ever was. Those hot Brisbane nights when we pretended we couldn’t sleep, and being a nocturnal animal (another film I really wanted to talk to him about and never got around to it), he was always awake, watching TV. On one occasion, he was watching Dune. We were six; those giant sandworms were the source of many nightmares.

He used to take us for an ice cream at the Westfield shopping centre in Indooropilly, every afternoon after school, so that our mother could finish her PhD, and he could enjoy the air conditioning. When we lived in Melbourne, we went to Lygon Street, or the Victorian Arts Centre. I remember how proud I was when he organised an exhibition of Japanese No masks there in 1990, and there was a grand opening where he gave a speech and everyone clapped. He was given a professorship and Chair of Anthropology in Melbourne when he was 45. He took us on several trips to Japan, which is what he studied all his life. He explained to me how the Kanji symbols work, and his fluent spoken Japanese (as far as I could tell) made him an excellent tour guide. Japanese people are always helpful and friendly, but their attitude to someone who can speak their language is noticeably warmer, and full of details that I was never privy to as a tourist. When he was teaching in Nagoya in 2002, we went around the temple at Nara , which I think was his favourite place in the world, and he encouraged me to put an offering in the box that was for the money god or spirit; he explained to me how Shinto consists of a large number of “kami” or spirits, which inhabit various objects or animals, I forget the exact detail, but I half-suspected he believed it.

When we were waiting for news of the second emergency operation he had been subjected to against his very extensive and written DNR, we were sitting on the terrace of his favourite cafe, and saw a beautiful red squirrel scamper surprisingly close to our table, and then disappear up a tree. I could see him in that movement; an animal always in search of treasures, always on the move, and so full of life. He did more with his life than most people ever achieve, and yet, there is an awful sense of disappointment about it, both because of its awful ending, and because I regret my own periodic resentment.

He could be a difficult, somewhat mercurial character, who with his full attention on you was like a sunbeam in his charm. He could make you feel that everything you said or did was exceptional in every way you wanted to hear; there were quite dazzling conversations about any number of slightly random topics, like whether the perception of time is a cultural concept (he had to give a lecture on it and seemed a bit unsure if it was even possible as an anthropological angle, without getting caught up in more philosophical discussion). It was like a continuous lightbulb moment of tantalising intellectual possibility. His total confidence about the world, and his Wanderlust, were another feature of our childhood. We would travel from Australia to Europe for a few months each year, and stop off with friends in Hong Kong. He’d walk into the Mandarin Oriental, or the Peninsula, and buy us afternoon tea. There were different rules for him; when they asked if he was a hotel guest, he said yes with total sang froid, put down a random room number, and paid in cash.

When we were six months old, he took us all to Afghanistan, because the tribal nomads on the plains outside Kabul were kind of fun to hang out with, apparently. There are pictures of him riding bareback horses, with a long, curly beard, which along with chain-smoking was probably de rigeur to fit in. He told us these stories of being ambushed on the highway and asked to hand over his car, but he offered his camera, enough cigarettes and a long yarn. His linguistic skill must have been considerable, and his charm got him everywhere.

And yet, when he withdrew into himself, and brushed you off, or got angry because we had used a turn of phrase he didn’t like, it was a crushing contrast. When he picked us up from primary school, he’d ask us how school had been, and if we didn’t respond enthusiastically or with whatever answer he was looking for, he’d say we had spoiled his day. There is sometimes a shadow to my memories of him, a shadow of the more enigmatic person, which I suppose is what made those flights of inspiration quite so high. It is perhaps no coincidence that he was always talking about the legend of Daedalus and Icarus to us as children, the father and son with such grand ambitions. But Icarus wants to fly too close to the sun, and he pays the price. The quote from Rainer Maria Rilke which we found amongst his things does most perfectly sum him up:

Du siehst, ich will viel.
Vielleicht will ich Alles:
das Dunkel jedes unendlichen Falles
und jedes Steigens lichtzitterndes Spiel.

You can see I want a great deal.

Perhaps I want it all:

The darkness of every eternal fall,

And the dancing light of every rise.

Goodbye Daddy, I wish I had ever said I loved you.

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