Symmetry in a World Out of Kilter

Featured Illustration: Lena Shevchuk

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“When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
-Khalil Gibran

. . .

My father would have appreciated the symmetry of the date he died — 12.1.21 — and would have commented on the fact that it was a palindrome. There was symmetry and precision in everything he did — the way he folded and tucked the wax paper that he wrapped our lunches in, the folds that he sharpened with his thumbnail as he mitered the corners of the brown paper used to cover our books. I can’t bear to watch people wrapping gifts at those stands that pop up in the mall at Christmas time. I want to take over and straighten the folds and corners they have fumbled. There was symmetry in the calligraphy that he used to write our names on our book covers, centered over a picture cut out from an old greetings card.

Forty years of teaching created a rhythm and order from school bells and terms, holidays and examinations. There was rhythm in the clickety-clack of his Olivetti typewriter, punctuated with a ‘ding’ when he reached the end of the line, followed by the mechanical clunk as he moved to the beginning of the next line. Those sounds were characteristic of my childhood as I lay in bed and he sat at the kitchen table typing reports or drawing up exam papers on stencils that would be ready to be duplicated on a Roneo machine in his office the next day.

The world felt ordered when he was around. Now it feels slightly out of kilter. In fact, everything about the last two weeks feels off balance. We were swept into the new year with his admission to the hospital on the last day of 2020. Before we even had time to process that he was gravely ill, we were taken on a wild rollercoaster as his heart bravely fought to keep him alive for 12 days. Every day for a week the doctors told us it was a matter of time, shaking their heads at his tenacity.

There was something disorderly about not being able to be there, to offer comfort and support to hold his hand, to pray at his bedside, in the restrictions warranted by the pandemic. When I heard that he had died, I jumped out of bed, my natural instinct to head off to the hospital or to family to gather and mourn together. I sank back onto the bed, wracking my brain to think of how to connect, to transmit my love and affection in this time of COVID social distancing.

While he was in hospital we reminisced, collected photographs, lit candles, prayed. We made a list of the songs he used to sing, releasing memories my mother shared with her grandchildren of how he had been part of an informal choir, singing at weddings with his brothers and cousins. I wondered about sitting in the hospital car park, just to be nearer.

Some time ago I asked my father to write out a poem I had composed about his mother — it talks about her crochet work as chains of thread that link us to each other and to her past. I visualised this link between her, my poem, and his writing. The week before he went into the hospital, he was eager to show me that he had finally got the font size and spacing to his liking. He had penciled in lines, ready to start on the paper I had bought, the symmetry guaranteed by his set square, the bottle of ink, and his old fountain pen at the ready.

My heart aches that he didn’t get to complete this project.

My heart aches that I had to say goodbye through layers of plastic and rubber, close enough to touch but not to feel.

My heart aches for the impersonal funeral, the white van with his body parked outside his house, while a limited number of mourners stood on the road, at safe distances from each other to say a quick prayer before departing for the cemetery.

My heart aches for my mother, who, seven days later, marked their 60th wedding anniversary without him.

And my heart aches for my siblings, family and friends, and all those whose lives my father touched. And, as a teacher, he touched many.

I don’t know where my father caught the virus or how long he was feeling ill before he agreed to go to the doctor. I don’t know what this pandemic is here to teach us exactly. But perhaps it is to teach us to be kinder, more compassionate, more connected, like my grandmother’s stitches and my father’s loops of calligraphy.