Back in 1997, shortly after my dad died, I wrote a little bit about the days leading up to his passing. This was partly for my own benefit and partly because I had no idea what else to do. I’ve just dug out my hard copy and read it for the first time in ages. What follows is a brief recap of what I wrote 20 years ago, but before that let me just set everything up a little bit.
I was 21, living at home with my parents and older sister, Donna and working as an office junior for a textile company that had recently gone through a management buy-out that resulted in a number of redundancies. I was one of the “lucky” ones who was kept on. Dad’s illness took hold very quickly. In the space of about six weeks he had gone from his usual smoking-like-a-chimney self to a mere shadow of the man he was. For most of these weeks he had been travelling back and forth to the hospital having various tests and scans to find out what was wrong…
Wednesday, 16th April 1997
I remember that it had been a nice, sunny day. Not bad for a day off work. My task for that morning had been to replenish a couple of essentials; bread and milk, before Mum and Dad came back from the hospital.
Today was D-Day. The decider. Today we were getting an answer to why Dad was in so much discomfort. I trotted home from the shop, bread and milk in hand, with very little on my mind other than wondering whether I’d still have a job when I went back in on Friday. Talks had been taking place since October. There had been rumours and counter-rumours of a management buy-out and, apparently, a deal had been reached and redundancies were on the cards. I wasn’t hopeful. Last in, first out was how I saw it. I think I was actually hoping for it, to be honest. I could do with a change as I was getting bored of filing, photocopying and making cups of tea. Losing my job right now would be a bonus.
I slotted my key in the lock and twisted it open. What greeted me on the other side of the door would change things forever. Mum and Dad were back from the hospital and by the look on Mum’s face I knew the news wasn’t good.
“I’m sorry, but your Dad’s got Cancer” she said, putting her arms around me. Still holding the newly purchased milk and bread I stood there. Numb. My sister, Donna, was stood in the kitchen staring out of the window into the garden – her domain. Dad was sat in the living room.
I placed the bread and milk to one side. I’m not entirely sure of my exact emotions at that moment, all I know is that it took me forever to walk into the living room and sit with Dad. I know that I ‘pottered’ about for a bit, putting off the inevitable. Donna told me that she had spoken with Dad who reassured her that he was alright and “everything will be fine”.
Life changed that day. Suddenly the ‘C’ word was in our home. The doctor at the hospital had told Mum that Dad’s cancer was too far gone for anything to be done. He was “riddled with it”. The best thing, the doctor advised, was to take Dad home and make him as comfortable as possible.
So we did. We brought the spare single bed downstairs and set it up in the living room, facing the window so he could see everything that was going on. We had a call from Macmillan nurses who had ordered some specialised equipment to help ease Dad’s discomfort.
I still had one more day off work and, as it turned out, it would be one of the hardest days of my life.
Thursday, 17th April 1997
Mum and Donna had to go back to the reality of work while I was left at home, on my day off, to look after Dad. Luckily my responsibility only had to last until lunchtime when Donna got home but those few hours were the longest of my life.
Our GP, Dr Hick, had been called out to prescribe medication, mainly morphine, for Dad’s pain. There was no other treatment that could be administered. Dr Hick wrote the prescription and asked how we were all doing.
“Fine” I replied. I used this word a lot over the coming weeks. That and “Ok, considering”. These two phrases became my stock answers to anyone who asked how I was feeling.
Before leaving the house that morning, Mum and Donna had pulled me to one side and told me not to let Dad go upstairs for any reason. He was far too weak to climb the stairs on his own. Now, I’m not a strong-minded person, nor am I the most confident when it comes to instigating orders. I have trouble saying “Boo!” to a goose so how am I going to my Dad to lose his dignity by denying him the use of a proper toilet and make him use a bucket?
The simple answer? I wasn’t. It was bad enough just seeing him as helpless as he was without me adding to his loss of pride. Don’t get me wrong, I would have done it if it had been required but I guess he was stronger than any of us thought. I made sure that I followed him closely up the stairs, holding on to him to help keep his balance and doing the same on the way down. On a couple of occasions I let him go on his own but stayed alert in case help was needed. It wasn’t.
The worst thing about the whole ordeal of the day was watching him, sitting on the bed dosed up with morphine, his hands shakily moving towards his mouth as if he still held on to one of his precious cigarettes. His face was so gaunt and grey that he looked like an extra in Schindler’s List. He was a shell of a man. A shadow of his former self. I hated seeing him like that.
Friday, 18th April 1997
Back to work. I don’t know why I didn’t just take today off as well! What’s the point of going back to work for just one day? Especially a Friday! I sat down at my desk, which wasn’t really my desk. Earlier in the week we had had a move around following a first round of redundancies. I now found myself in a chair that wasn’t even cold from it’s previous owner’s recently departed rear end. My mind wasn’t focussed anyway. I hadn’t even noticed who had gone and who was still there. I needed to tell someone about my news but I didn’t know who.
I braved it out for a bit and got on with my daily tasks. The Toast run; making cups of tea for everyone and the dreaded photocopying. I started the machine and watched as everyone went about their work. I wondered how many of them had felt like I was feeling right now.
One of my colleagues stepped up to the photocopier wanting to get “just one” piece of copying in before I started on my mountain of paperwork. She asked how my time off had gone. For some reason it was here and now, in front of the photocopier, that I chose to let it out.
“Not good” I started. “Found out my Dad’s got Cancer”. That was that. I can’t remember what she said in reply but I know it felt better for telling someone. She got her copying done and I worked through my paper mountain. Later on, as I was making another cup of tea for the boss, another of my colleagues popped in to see me. She had heard my news and wanted to see how I was doing.
“Fine” I said. “Not bad, considering”. She expressed her sympathy which I don’t think even registered with me before telling me that if I ever needed time off to let her know. I think I smiled and said ‘thank you’, but I’m not sure.
The day ended and I couldn’t have wished for it any sooner. Retail therapy was calling before heading home (The Usual Suspects on VHS!) When I got home, the District Nurse was in the middle of telling Mum all about the service she could provide. She told us about the Macmillan nurses again and that a special mattress and commode had been ordered.
Saturday, 19th April 1997
Most of today is a blank! I had prearranged with friends to go to the late night showing of The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition at the local multiplex. We stopped in at the pub beforehand. It was loud and full of weird-looking clubbers, a scene I wasn’t used to. I felt so out of place there that I probably stuck out like a sore thumb. It was here, however, above the thumping music and flashing lights that I told my best friend the news.
“Found out Dad’s got Cancer”
That’s pretty much verbatim.
The film was a very late showing, not starting until midnight, so the finish was a little after two o’clock in the morning. I’m not sure I stayed awake till the end but I think I remember Darth Vader being Luke’s father, or something like that!
Back home, Dad was in a virtual coma following his morphine doses. Mum lay on a blow-up bed next to him. I kissed them both goodnight and went to bed.
Sunday, 20th April 1997
All of Sunday was a blur, possibly due to getting in really late (or early!). I really only remember the night time, watching a programme with Dennis Waterman in (I think it had Circle in the title). I remember going to bed at around 10pm and having the weirdest dreams where I was informing friends and family of Dad’s death.
At about 10:50pm, Donna knocked on my door. I rolled over to see her silhouette in the doorway and got a terrible feeling in my stomach.
“Steve, you’d better come downstairs. I think he’s gone”
I still get that same feeling in my stomach every time I think about that moment. I followed Donna downstairs where I saw Mum, leaning against the wall in the hallway. She wore the bravest face I’ve ever seen on her.
I almost didn’t want to go into the living room. I could feel my whole body shaking. My brother and his wife arrived and I made my way into the room. He was exactly as he was when I’d kissed him goodnight just a short time ago. He looked like he was sleeping. I shivered. Almost uncontrollably. My brother, Simon, rang for an ambulance while the rest of us gathered in the dining room. Dad was alone in the living room.
I sat on the sofa, knees up to my chest, hugging myself to keep warm. It was the strangest of feelings. Nobody knew what to do with themselves, least of all Mum. The ambulance arrived in minutes – they had been in the area on a break – and they confirmed Dad’s death and called for the undertaker. Mum rang her sister and then one of her work colleagues from the phone in the living room. When she had finished I went in to see Dad. It was the first time I had ever felt this helpless. I had no idea what to do. So I did the only thing I knew. I leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead. I had seen it done so many times in the movies. It seemed the right thing to do.
I know the days after Dad died went by in a blur. Phone calls were made, visitors arrived and then left. Flowers were deposited and sympathies were delivered. His funeral was arranged for the following Friday, 25th April. The whole family were cramped into the living room. Waiting. A glance out of the curtain signalled the arrival of the cars and we filtered outside. I kept looking at Mum who was in a daze. She had lost her partner. Her sidekick. How must she be feeling?
“Fine. Not bad, considering”
The journey to the cemetery was unreal. You see funeral processions all the time, maybe even take a glance at the coffin and it’s bouquets of flowers. You might even take a peek in the cars, seeing the grief facing out. Now I was on the inside of one of these cars, looking out and noticing all the people stopping to take a look. I felt like I was in a goldfish bowl. No place to hide in here.
The service was a blur, as was much of the day, but going home afterwards was awful. It was like we had just left him there at the cemetery. Our last image of him was his coffin disappearing behind the blue curtain to the sound of peaceful organ music. I think there was talk of playing Jim Reeves’ “I Love You Because” as it was Mum and Dad’s song but Mum was in such a state that she couldn’t bear hearing it without him stood by her side.
About a week or so later, we received Dad’s ashes. We scattered some of his ashes in the back garden and an ornamental pot in which we planted a Peace Rose. It was one of his favourite places and of his most favourite plants. That summer the garden bloomed like never before and Dad’s rose blossomed like nothing I’d ever seen in my life. Every morning, Mum would take a little walk in the garden and talk to Dad. She would caress the leaves of his rose and tell him what was happening.
I still think about my Dad every day. I’d always heard people who had lost someone close say this and I didn’t think it was possible. But it is. Even if it’s just the slightest of thoughts like when The African Queen comes on TV or I hear Jim Reeves on the radio. I think about the things he’s missed. The births, deaths and in-betweens. I sometimes think he hasn’t missed any of it. Even now, twenty years later, as I look at his photograph on my bookcase, I smile. I think of his often terrible DIY skills; the table with wonky legs he made at night school; lying on the floor next to Mum doing the crosswords and swapping their glasses to read to clues; scaring the cats away from the garden and his joy at finding the right kind of stick to stir the paint with. Part of me is glad he wasn’t around to see Mum become victim to Alzheimer’s, I don’t think he’d have been able to cope with her not remembering him. He lives on, though. I sometimes see his face when I look in the mirror. Often I make the same noises when I get up from a chair and I sometimes find joy in finding the perfect stick.
Donald Green 1924 – 1997