One Year On

I've been dreading writing this. It's not the usual procrastination and not the fear of having to do something I don’t want to. It's the need to do it mixed with the knowing that it will bring up things I've been happy not to think about for a while.

I've not spoken much about my Dad's death. I didn't feel the need to but I always knew there would be a time to reflect on it properly and, one year on, that time is here. Funerals are the time to mark the passing, to grieve together and say goodbye. I don't understand them and they don't work for me. Dad's funeral was small, 8 of us, although there would have been many more if Mum, my sister and I had invited them. Dad was popular and there could have been many more there but he would have wanted it to be small and private. Or maybe that’s what we wanted.

It started in March. Mum and Dad had returned to the UK a few months earlier, after 4 years of living in France. Christmas was nice as my in-laws were visiting from Hungary and we were all together. By March, Dad was out in the garden again where he spent a lot of time working. For 70 he was in good shape and very active, so climbing trees to cut down branches wasn’t unusual. Having pains in his chest afterwards was odd but easy to put it down to just over-doing it. The pains didn’t go away tho and then the coughing came. Like most men, Dad wasn’t one for going to the doctors, so only went there after the pain didn’t go away and Mum made him go. Then came the scan and the shadow on the lung. Not good. Things progressed fairly quickly or at least that’s how I remember it now.

By April, Dad was in hospital to have fluid drained from his lungs. It was meant to be a week but it became a month. The hospital was a few miles from where my wife, Timi and I lived and I cycled there to see him most nights. We were all fully in denial, conscious that there could be something very bad but trying not to think about it. Dad wasn’t a big talker, so pretending that all was well came easily. Whilst there, Dad had a biopsy to find out what the shadow was.

During the May Bank Holiday Timi and I were in Hungary for my birthday. We were in an odd limbo time of not wanting to make new plans in case we needed to be close to home but not cancelling anything either. I kept in contact with Mum while we were away and “all was well”. The day after we got back Mum emailed to ask if she could meet me at home after work. That was the point that I knew that we couldn’t be in denial anymore.

Mum couldn’t look at me when she told me. Dad had lung cancer. It was Mesothelioma, a rare type caused by contact with asbestos. Dad was an engineer and would have had a lot of contact with it, long before it was known to be dangerous. Mesothelioma lays dormant, often for 30 years and then suddenly becomes a problem very quickly. There’s no cure and not much in the way of effective treatment.

Dad was allowed to go home soon after and there were plans for chemotherapy to delay the effects. He was upbeat and positive as usual, not wanting to worry anyone. We all got on with it by pretending it wasn’t happening. The most consistent advice that I got from friends was “don’t leave anything left unsaid”. I understood that but at the same time I didn’t know what there was that was unsaid. I was lucky to have a great childhood and the best parents I could wish for. I didn’t feel that there was anything unsaid but the advice made me think that maybe there should be.

Summer was somewhat surreal. The first round of chemo came and went and was fairly straightforward. Timi and I would visit as often as we could and we spent time in the garden, enjoying the summer evenings with Mum and Dad. I had an odd mix of enjoying the time spent together and a greater appreciation of the value of the time left with a dread of what would come next.

Chemo round 2 had more of an impact. Dad slept for most of the 3 weeks that followed. He decided not to carry on with round 3. That was the point where there were really no more options. By September, not even 6 months on from the first pains in the chest, we knew that there was nothing left to be done. Dad was happy to stay in denial and did not want to talk about his illness. This meant that we could not ask how long he had left. Mum read that, with Mesothelioma, it's often 1 year from the first diagnosis. In the end we had half of that.

The final 2 weeks were a rapid decline. I had moved in with my parents to do whatever was needed. Dad couldn’t do much for himself anymore and retreated even further into himself. The hardest thing for me was watching Mum spoon-feeding him with baby food when he couldn’t do it for himself. After a life well lived that’s not something you want to end up doing whichever side of the spoon you’re on.

During the last week we had a hospital bed downstairs. Dad wasn’t able to talk or carry himself any more and Mum and I were not able to carry him upstairs. We had regular visits from carers who would wash and feed him. They were amazing and are so professional at a job that I can’t imagine doing at all. Through that week Mum and I would take it in turns to be with him and make sure he was OK. I would talk to him and he talked back. I had no idea if he understood what I was saying and I certainly didn’t understand what he was trying to say. Either way, there was nothing left unsaid.

October 11th was an otherwise normal, sunny autumn day. The carers came to wash, feed and shave Dad. I was on the sofa, working and keeping an eye out for him. By now his breathing had slowed down and there were longer gaps between breaths. Around 10 I noticed that it had been an especially long gap...

For a very long time I considered that the death of one of my parents would be the worst thing that could happen. At the time it was, but it was also not how I expected. 6 months is an odd combination of enough time to get used to something happening but too quick to get any real perspective. By the point that he had stopped breathing I was just running a process that I had rehearsed in my mind for several months. The final day was surreal. There was the calling the doctor and waiting for morning appointments to end before the doctor could come out. Then there was the Police who had to come out in cases of an industrial-related illness but didn’t know what to do when they arrived. I had to call the doctor to get him to explain to the police what they should be doing. It was a full 8 hours before the undertakers came for him. Then came the unexpected relief. Relief that he wasn’t going to be in that pain anymore and that part of the nightmare was over.

The hardest thing was calling Lisa, my sister. Lisa lives a very long way away in Zambia with all of the difficulties of not being able to be home regularly. Lisa had come back to visit Dad in July, the last time he was well enough to appreciate it. Having lived abroad myself for several years I knew the fear of something bad happening at home and having to deal with something remotely. The auto-pilot process of dealing with the death only worked until I called Lisa and then I fell apart.

So, it's one year on and a lot had happened. Timi and I bought and refurbished a house. Mum visited Lisa in Zambia and their relationship is the best I’ve seen it in as long as I can remember. We’ve all had our fair share of ups and downs. Dad is still with us all and in different ways for each of us. For me it's deep in who I am. He was a good man and I hope I am too.

Richard gowerComment