October 27th 2014
(I am, behind the public persona, a private person – not quite a misanthrope, but I find talking to strangers difficult, and large crowds intimidating, which makes conventions and things like that a bit of a double-edged sword. Sharing personal feelings to anyone but the few close friends I have is, frankly, right out. However, I’m making an exception here, for reasons that are complicated, conflicted, and probably ultimately selfish, but an event such as this is significant and worth marking publicly. I’m not looking for sympathy or understanding, or anything like that, and I’m going to attempt to steer clear of mawkish sentimentality. Perhaps I’m aiming for pathos. I don’t know. Anyway…)
My father – known throughout my life as simply ‘Dad’ – died last Wednesday, aged 83. He had pancreatic cancer, amongst over things, but it was the cancer that killed him, and it took him two years to die from first symptoms to final breath. For much of that time he was in reasonable health. He and my mum managed a holiday in Italy last year, and up until a few months ago, he was still mowing the lawn using his impractically-sized lawn mower. I have subsequently used said mower, and it’s a bit of a beast.
He was, inevitably, a fixed point in my life for my entire existence. The family home has been, since we moved there when I was seven, exactly in the same place, with lots of things changing around it, but itself unchanging. Just over three weeks ago, I took a train south – having lived in the north for longer than I haven’t now – to help my mum look after my dad as his condition deteriorated. It was his wish that he died at home. His sick bed was in my old bedroom, at the back of the house, up a precipitous flight of stairs, and we kept watch over this increasingly spare old man, helping where we could, beginning to despair when we couldn’t. He had always been a strong man. Towards the end he could no longer stand, no longer swallow even. Pancreatic cancer is a crappy way to go, and you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy, let alone someone you love and care for. I’ll save you the descriptions of the indignities.
When it became clear that we couldn’t keep him at home – the sheer amount of medication he required to keep him pain-free, and the reality of the level of specialist care he needed, was profound – he was collected by ambulance for the short trip to the Duchess of Kent House, a small hospice of only fifteen beds, where he could be properly looked after by professionals who knew what they were doing. We could be cared for too, because it’s not until you stop that you realise that the lack of sleep, the living on your nerves and snatched meals, has worn you down too.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I lost it for a while, after he’d been carried with the utmost care down those precipitous stairs, after he’d been lifted into the ambulance, leaving his home for the last time, after I’d travelled with my dad in the ambulance to the hospice, after he’d been installed in a room and made comfortable. I don’t know what it was: probably a mixture of regret, relief, and exhaustion. I went through most of a box of tissues in the company of one of the nurses, and finally pulled myself together.
From entering the hospice, it took him a further nine days to finally die. He’d passed his birthday and wedding anniversary at home two weeks previously, and we assumed that if he was hanging on for them, he’d let go afterwards. Apparently not. We spent – my mum, my brother and me – as much time with him as possible. Sometimes he was responsive. Mostly he wasn’t. We were encouraged to keep talking to him, as his perception of our presence was going to be the last thing to go.
He died in his, and everybody else’s sleep, in the small hours of Wednesday. My mum was asleep in the same room at the time. Me and my brother drove to the hospice through the deserted country lanes (count: two cats, two foxes, two cars) and deserted suburban streets. The night was so clear the stars were glittering overhead, undimmed by sodium glare.
And then we packed up all our stuff – cards, clothes, my sponge bag which had been co-opted to hold his syringe driver while he’d still been at home – and came home. I slept again, against expectations.
When you die, you generate an enormous amount of paperwork. I mean, a scary amount. Some of it is simply unavoidable, what it takes to wind up a person’s life and strike a line through their public records. Some of it is avoidable, and a cause of no little frustration. What would have been simple and quick to sort out when the person was alive becomes complicated and drawn-out after their death. You often hear about folk ‘putting their affairs in order’ before they become incapable of action. Apparently, my dad had little truck with the notion, which is a great shame. We’ll cope, and get to the bottom of it eventually.*
We exist between the mercies we show and the mercies shown to us. Despite leaving his personal paperwork in a bit of mess, dad was a parish councillor for nearly three decades, and was a heroic fund-raiser for his Methodist church when they were renovating the building. The whole community seemed to be on my mum’s doorstep for days, and no doubt they’ll be there long after I’ve gone home, back up north.
We have the funeral to endure. We have the disposal of his clothes, his tools – he taught me almost everything I know about home maintenance – and some of his other effects, mainly books and pictures, that my mum won’t want to keep. We have to continue without him. Hardest for my mum, still difficult for his brother, his children and their families.
However. I have nothing to regret in my relationship with my dad, which is something I can’t say about most of my other relationships. We saw each other often, spoke more often than that. We stayed at each other’s houses for long periods of time without falling out. We enjoyed each other’s company, and we talked, not just about the fripperies of life, but about deep things too. We could work together, side by side. I didn’t feel the need to ‘catch up’ for missed time, or repair a fractured friendship before he died. Looking after him in the last few weeks was only odd because he’d never needed it before, and would have always turned away such offers before. That he was too ill to refuse was an indication that he didn’t have long left.
He wasn’t a saint. He was a person, complex and changeable, with his virtues and faults. He was my dad, and I loved him.
* (But if you get the chance yourself, or the chance to talk to a friend or relative about it, please, please do so: put your affairs in order if you can. It might seem cold and logical. What it is is kindness itself.)