Late last May, when the fragile newspaper industry in Australia was on the verge of shattering, I had a flexible job that paid OK and allowed me to work remotely. Three months into the 12-month contract, I was miserable, but determined to stick to my plan: suck it up for a year and save, save, save—then use the money to self-fund a creative sabbatical to pursue writing I was actually proud of.
Everything changed with an email sent by my Mom in upstate New York to avoid waking me in the middle of the night in Australia. Dad has pneumonia, he’s in intensive care, it’s not looking good, she wrote…They will just try to keep him comfortable if he does not improve...
Within the space of 20 hours I quit my job and booked and boarded a flight from Tasmania to Rochester. Crammed into window seats on each of the four legs, this was the longest 39-hours of continuous travel of my life.
Would Dad still be alive when I got there?
It was a horrible, nagging question… I was too terrified of potential bad news to call home during my layovers, but when the last flight of the journey was delayed by several hours, I took a deep breath and dialed the number.
“Dad’s fine,” she said. “Don’t worry.”
“What do you mean, he’s fine?”
They withdrew the oxygen and he is breathing on his own, he is getting better. He knows you’re coming, it looks like he is going to pull through.
I’m pretty sure the only acceptable response to this news was to be ecstatic. Instead, I felt conflicted. What would his quality of life be like? Would work think I was lying? Was I jumping the gun? Should I have held on longer to my job?
Every good thing I’ve accomplished in my life thus far has occurred when I’ve prioritized people over pragmatism, yet still I doubt myself.
When I finally arrived at the hospital, Dad did not look “fine” to me. He was gaunt and contorted and frail. His legs had been bent for so long in one position that when I gently tried to straighten them, he writhed.
But when I sat beside his bed and took his hands in mine, his elation was almost overwhelming.
My brother snapped some pictures on my mobile phone, and I found myself flipping through them again and again to quell that pesky doubt when it began to creep in.
Some days, Dad slept through our entire visit. Others, he fell asleep mid-sentence, still sitting up. Sometimes he complained of “acid stomach,” or pain in his hands. Other times his face lit up with a smile that could soften the security officers at Los Angeles International Airport.
He always hugged each of us tightly, with every bit of strength he could muster. Mostly we sat and listened to the news together or Mom or I read books to him. I loved to watch his eyes light up in response to the stories I would tell.
As each visit concluded, he mouthed the words ‘I love you.’ He couldn’t quite articulate the whole sentence anymore.
During the time all this was going on, a hurricane hit the already fledgling newspaper industry in Australia. Massive restructures and redundancies were announced at both the major newspaper corporations, and I learned that a paper I derived a significant portion of income from would no longer have a freelance budget.
The uncertainty was confronting.
But five weeks after I arrived in Rochester, Dad stopped breathing while lying in bed…
And I stopped wondering whether I made the right decision.
I won’t pretend it has been an easy transition; as the grief faded I’ve had to make tough decisions and money has been tight. I’ve had to rely on the support of friends. I’ve had to ask for help and accept it. But I haven’t had to ask ‘what if?’ and for that, I will always be grateful.