Sex and Grief Pt. 1
Feeling alive at any cost
Detail from The Return of Persephone by Frederic Leighton (1891)
My father will probably die within the next week. He is currently in the local hospice, in a comfortable room with a large TV and kind, bustling nurses, living out his final days as his body quietly shuts down. I am sitting in his favourite chair at home, counting down the minutes until I drive out to see him, as I have done every day since he was transferred to the inpatient ward. I am waiting for him to die, and all of my hours are geared around his upcoming departure: when will I go to the hospice today and for how long, should I go to the supermarket to get more bottles of Lucozade (suddenly the only thing he will drink), when should I go to sleep so I have energy for the next day, and the next, and the next.
When I see him, my body becomes an extension of my father’s - it works to compensate for his dying one, reaching for drinks he can no longer hold and lifting his legs when he becomes uncomfortable. I call for nurses on his behalf and moisturise his hands. I raise and lower the bed over and over again until he is settled enough to sleep, and I sit for hours in the chair next to him studying his face for signs of pain. Dying is a lot of work, I am finding. I am very tired.
When I return home at the end of the day and sit in my childhood bedroom, in the hour or two I have to myself, I dream about sex. Initially this caught me off-guard - there is no eroticism in my current situation and very little in the way of pleasure. Why then, does my mind drift to bacchanalic fantasies of sex, punctuated by sweating bodies and sunlight, invariably in hot, faraway places with plentiful food and wine? Why do I think about the touch of a lover on my skin, deep kisses and long, lazy days in bed?
The answer, of course, is obvious: I want to feel alive. I sit with my dying father each day and see him die a little more, a one-way road he is painfully inching down. I see other people come into the hospice and, several days or a week later, their rooms lie empty and nurses are putting fresh bedding out for the next patient. I am living in an ambient underworld, with free tea and coffee and kind nurses who pass me tissues while I cry in the designated “quiet room”. Every touch I receive here is marked by grief - my father’s hand holding mine, growing weaker each day; the nurse who hugs me in the corridor when I see my father’s oxygen tank for the first time; the volunteer with sad eyes who hands me a cream cake and tells me how well I’m doing under the circumstances. Each touch says: you are going through the unimaginable.
I want to be touched without loss. I want to be a body that is desired rather than a body tired and sore from caring for my dying father, I want to be alive and laughing and eating in the sunlight, having never known death like I do now. I want no more goodbyes or finalities, only the open and wandering present. I want hedonism and carelessness and selfishness. I want the immediacy only sex and dancing can bring, where you are one, two, three or more bodies moving in unison with the sole pursuit of pleasure.
I keep making lists, you see, of things I am going through now, and things I have to look forward to after. Everything I write turns into a list of now and after, trying to tie the two points in time together and promising myself that there is indeed a future, perhaps even a future full of life and joy in the absence of my father. To imagine life without him feels like imagining a world without air, but I must believe that that new world can be made habitable and, one day, be made home. There is a future where I do not consider it a future, where I am only living in the glorious present, having sex in the sunlight and being touched with joy.
My current present is a waiting room for the future, waiting for when my father dies and my life, ironically, kick-starts into motion again. I recognise each day with him as a gift, to tell him how much I love him and hold his hand while watching old reruns of cooking shows, but each day is a repeat of the last, with my father’s deterioration as the only indication that time is moving forward at all. Each day the same grey skies, each day my 3pm-7:30pm visiting slot, but each day a new loss, too, as my father can no longer type on his phone, or lift a glass to his lips, or, now, even breathe unassisted. Each loss acts as a minor rehearsal for the big loss inching closer on the horizon. The only future I am presented with is one where his hand stops holding mine and he is taken off the oxygen tank.
I must, somehow, believe there is a future after that, when my father’s body lies in the ground and I go on without him. My only desire for that future is to swallow each new day whole, letting my time in the underworld propel me forwards with a new understanding of just how rare life is and how quickly it can be lost. I will be a different person - a person I haven’t met yet - who lost his father at 28 and, inexplicably, lived on. I will be someone who knows the value of pleasure and feeling alive at any cost because I have seen just how quickly life can leave a body. I will want nothing more than to throw myself into joy for both my sake and my father’s memory.
But I am not there yet. For now I sit in my father’s favourite chair, watching the clock and thinking about when I will go to the hospice today and whether he will have the strength to hold my hand. Time stays still and marches slowly onwards, death lingers at the door. I still don’t know who I will be after this and whether I will want the sex I fantasise about and the glorious, unabated hedonism. All I know is that the future is a foreign country, and I do things differently there.
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Fucking hell. This articulates some acutely painful and beautiful things, thank you for sharing.
I stumbled on this via a post on twitter, and read it, holding my mother’s hand as she dozed in and out of sleep in the hospital bed we had installed in the living room a few weeks ago, in order for her to die at home. I just wanted to send my heartfelt condolences to you, and to say thank you for articulating many of the emotions I’m currently experiencing in this bizarre, nightmarish liminal space…