This week, I don’t know where to begin. It was one of the most intense and strange experiences of my life. Let’s start with Monday.
Monday morning I went to the gym and came home with a list of bits and bobs I needed to do for my writing. As I sat down, to write, I realised I’d missed a call from Dad’s home. I rang and was put through to the nurse who was looking after him that day.
‘Your father did not eat or drink anything yesterday and he is refusing all food and drink today,’ he said. ‘I think we are close to the end.’
‘Oh bless him, poor Dad. Do you need me to come now?’ I asked.
‘You don’t need to come, but if you want to see him, you should come.’
‘I’m coming down to see him on Wednesday.’
‘He may be here on Wednesday. He is going down slowly, but today or tomorrow is better.’
‘D’you mean, Wednesday will be too late?’
‘If he carries on this way, I think so, although it is difficult to say.’
‘Has a priest seen him?’
‘Not yet, there is a number we can call, would you like us to get one?’
‘Yes please, he’s Church of England, an Anglican I’ll try and get the parish priest from his own church to come too.’
‘He won’t be alone, when they reach this stage, we always make sure is someone with them at all times.’
I said thank you and rang off.
So here it was, the moment all of us had been dreading, yet kind of hoping for too. It looked like Dad was on his deathbed, time to scramble the troops. But this is Alzhiemer’s so there was nothing to say Dad wouldn’t start eating and drinking and be fine, indeed, in my own mind, I had this last bit pegged as the lying-in-a-bed-year.
This is where WhatsApp is a godsend. I managed to tell everyone, barring a couple of folks, with one message to our WhatsApp group. The biggie was telling Mum, though, because she was alone until midday and I wanted to be sure there was someone with her when I passed on the news.
That evening, McMini wanted to bring a friend home after school. He pushed, I said no, he told me the friend had to come because his mother had already said it was OK and left the school gates, I told him no, he kept pushing and I explained Pops was ill. Still he wanted the friend to come and I’m afraid I snapped, angry with him for not appearing to give a shit, I told him his grandfather was on his death bed, that his father was on the way home so I could go say goodbye and that I was not in a very fit state to play the part of kindly friend’s Mum, but I let him bring the friend home for a short visit.
I felt terrible for breaking it to him like that. The little lads took a long time to arrive and I discovered that McMini had hung up and then cried his eyes out, at which point he and friend had stopped and sat on a bench so friend could comfort him and friend had cried too. I felt bad but also reassured that he cared more than he’d made out.
I got hold of Mum and Dad’s parish priest and she promised to be at Dad’s bedside that evening. True to her word, she arrived shortly after Mum and gave Dad the last rites, or Extreme Unction which sounds like some kind of dangerous sport. Dad was quiet and not very responsive but incredibly peaceful when it was done.
My brother and I drove down to Sussex on the Monday evening, but it turned out that Dad had taken a little water and eaten some sweets, perhaps he was on the mend? We didn’t know.
We discussed it. What do you do in a death bed situation? Life is not the same as it was, you can’t stop the world and step out of it for a couple of weeks to sit, in vigil, by a slowly fading loved one. It’s a luxury modern life no longer affords us. There’s stuff to do and the bastards who want you to do it consider such a situation no excuse. Commerce can’t afford space for acts of compassion like that.
At five thirty a.m. on Tuesday I woke with a start to find my mother standing over me, complete with walker.
‘We have to ring the home.’
‘It’s five am.’
‘They said we could ring any time.’
‘On you go then.’
‘You’re the main point of contact, you have to do it.’
Sometimes I forget that my Mum has dementia too. So I rang the home. He was comfortable and had eaten a couple of sweets and had some water.
We went to see him on Tuesday. The four of us, together as a family, painfully aware that it was probably for the last time. He wasn’t hugely responsive, although I felt maybe that was the way we were dealing with it. Maybe we weren’t engaging him right, because throughout his illness, Dad has made the running, asked the questions which we answer. Always the host, asking us how we are, who our relations are, and asking after them. A polite interrogation, sometimes after those he loves, sometimes, engaging us in conversation as if he’s meeting us for the first time.
He lay there, looking at his hands, even frailer and thinner than last week, ravaged partly by his illness and partly through force of his own will. His head like a skull with thin skin stretched over it, the lesions … I thought of him as I’d known him, remembered our holidays when I was a nipper, squelching across the mud on Stiffkey salt marsh. Dad was a man who loved the sun on his skin and the squelch of the mud between his toes! I wished for a lot of things that I can’t have.
He was very peaceful. It was like sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, Dad was calm and clearly perfectly content, waiting …
We went out to lunch afterwards. It felt like this was a good and gentle death, even if it’s a slow one, and I didn’t fully hoist in how upset Mum was until she couldn’t eat anything.
Later, we tried to work out a plan of action. What to do? Was this was the first of many deathbed scrambles, or was there was only going to be the one. Eventually, we decided that he probably wasn’t going to die in the next few days. My brother decided to go home and come back at the weekend. I decided to stay until Wednesday morning because I’d agreed to meet a lovely family friend and see Dad with him.
Wednesday came, Dad was still around, said friend turned up. I shan’t name him because I haven’t asked him if I can so I’ll just call him Adba. Anyone who should know will realise exactly who that is and no-one else will be any the wiser. Anyway, Adba turned up and off we went. His mother spent the last year or so of her life in bed, in a similar state to the one Dad was in now, so when we walked in, he knew exactly what to do. He took Dad’s hand, called him by his name, said he was looking well, acted as if Dad was perfectly responsive and of course, the miracle happened. Dad was.
He couldn’t speak, but his face broke into the most delighted smile and he raised his hand and waved a jokey wiggly fingers wave. Adba waved back. I waved. We laughed, Dad smiled.
We reminisced about the Hogworts set I grew up on, Dad’s time there and the other members of staff. Dad smiled and nodded and sometimes shook his head and waved several times. Adba and I recalled funny stories to Dad about his exploits as a housemaster, and shared them with one another.
Forty minutes flew by and it was time to go. I took Dad’s hand and told him I loved him, that he was the best father anyone could ever have had, that McOther, McMini, his other grandchildren, my brother, my mum, (and pretty much Uncle Tom Cobbley and all by the time I’d finished listing everyone who wasn’t there and who’d want me to tell him while he was with it) loved him. He smiled, a wonderful huge smile, and squeezed my hand again and again as I spoke. Both of us were just filled with joy. It was one of those rare moments of connection and love without words, when even if he couldn’t speak, he didn’t need to be able to. At the end I said goodbye. Dad and I both know what kind of goodbye it was – Adba probably knew and all – but I told Dad I’d see him next week anyway, and Adba said he’d be back to see the old boy the week after, we said we’d see Dad together that time, same as this visit.
It was a near perfect farewell for me and I am eternally grateful to Adba, whose presence, and whose wisdom in engaging with Dad made it possible. Those smiles and those squeezes of the hand were wonderful. I just feel bad that we didn’t take Mum with us to share them too.
Adba and I came out of the home, only to immediately get a phone call from Mum’s carer. My uncle on Mum’s side who was coming to lunch that day, had arrived with a gargantuan nosebleed. The carer at home reckoned it would be best if she rang the pub we ate in and got them to do a takeaway, could we pick it up? Of course we could. A few seconds later we were directed to a different pub.
We duly picked up the fish and chips, they took a little while so Adba and I had half a pint of Harveys each in the garden. When we picked up the lunch we left in haste, without paying. Arriving home, it turned out that Uncle’s nose was still bleeding. He was sitting on a stool in the downstairs loo, and it looked as if someone had been murdered in there, but only after a good twenty minutes of stiff resistance.
Taking in the bloodied surroundings, I began to wonder about blood loss at this point and suggested an ambulance. In the end, carer – who shared my concerns – and gardener – who was ‘mowing the lawn’ but really just checking Mum was OK – leapt into carer’s car and drove Uncle and Aunt to hospital, gardener escorting them in while carer parked. I did manage to get Aunt to eat half her fish so at least she wasn’t going to be sitting there feeling hungry as well as worried.
Off they went, leaving Adba, Mum and I finishing off the fish and chips the others hadn’t eaten. At this point I remembered we hadn’t paid for them, rang the pub and paid by credit card. I announced that I was going to be very British about the murder scene in the downstairs loo and pretend it didn’t exist while we had a chat. Adba left at half three and I went and cleared up. It took until half four. Then I deep cleaned our spare room so Uncle and Aunt could sleep there because I didn’t think either of them was in a fit state to go home. Once I’d done that, I realised I was going to have to stay Wednesday night as well because Mum already has dementia but the state of Dad has really knocked her for six and so she’s even more challenged in the memory department than usual, bless her. I didn’t want her waking up and being surprised to find her brother there and the state she was in, she might have done.
Uncle and Aunt finally got back late, I had a light supper ready. We did breakfast the next morning and then they had a follow up appointment at the hospital at 1.30. They wanted to take a taxi to the hospital rather than drive so I sorted that out for them. Finally at about 12.00 I set off for home. I arrived with half an hour to spare before I needed to be meeting McMini at small church, which he does on a Thursday. I used that half an hour buying some summer clothes that fitted my ever expanding, ever more zeppelin-like body.
It’s Friday as I write this and I’ve just received a call from my Mum to say that Dad has been given a prognosis of hours if it’s bad, a day or two if it’s good. So it’s back to Sussex again, although I need two good night’s sleep in a decent bed before I go back down there, and also, half term plus Bank Holiday Friday traffic tonight? No thanks. Not even with the Jo Whiley show, which was a wonderful tonic as I snivelled my way round the M25 on Monday.
No. The sensible course is to go tomorrow morning. By the time you read this, I will be creeping slowly round Britain’s most congested motorway. Dad may well be gone, and if he isn’t he’ll be very close. So, if you’re on the M25 tomorrow and there’s this fifty year old bag in a knackered Lotus, with the headlights on because the daylight running bulbs are bust, ear plugs in and the music on really loud, looking as if she’s got really bad hay fever, feel free to give me a wave!
In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
With thee, dear Lord, beside me;
They rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy cross before to guide me.
Goodbye Dad. And thank you. It’s been wonderful.