This is one of the last photos I have of my dad. It was taken during chemo, towards the end of chemo I think, mid June. Rather than resting like he should have been, my dad, always keen to suck the marrow out of every possible experience, had accompanied myself, mum and sister to a tour of an archaeological excavation nearby. Whilst building new houses the private archaeology team had discovered a fantastic and curious Roman building, but it was going to be covered over soon for future archaeologists to examine. I remember it being so hot that day. I got the back of my neck burned. Dad eventually went to sit in the air conditioned car, but his curiosity and sense of wonder meant that he had made it through a couple of hours on the site. He did really well with the chemo, but it drained him. He struggled with the nausea. It didn’t stop him living his life. He was quite bullish like that. I don’t think I have ever come across anyone with such a zest for experience and a willingness to try everything and anything. He was seventy one years old, with the fitness of a much younger man. He was someone who had his own ideas about life and just went ahead with them. On Monday last week (is it really only a week ago?) we (mum, dad and me) drove to Castle Hill hospital to drop him off for his surgery. We all knew it was an extremely high risk surgery with a high death rate. In reality it was three major operations in one sitting, a surgery that took ten and a half hours. He was nervous on the day, and it manifested in a no-nonsense, not-making-a-fuss, very businesslike approach to the operation. When we parked up he got his stuff out of the car and was striding across the carpark to the hospital before I knew it. I shouted across “oi! Aren’t you going to say goodbye?!” and he turned round and said :”sorry, bye then, thanks for driving”. And he was off again. He was always striding everywhere at pace, my dad. When we were little we had to run to keep up with him. The last thing he actually said to me, and the thing that I keep thinking about, was “make sure you tuck that seatbelt in, otherwise it’ll bang all the way back”. That was my dad all over, not wanting a fuss, not wanting the emotion to show. He’d turned, after that goodbye, and I actually thought he was coming back to hug me, but he walked straight past me to check on the car seatbelts and then that really was it, he was leaving. I told my brother about that later on and we laughed because it was so Dad. I let my mum take him into the ward because dad wasn’t just dad, he was a husband too and I wanted them to have that crucial alone time together. He didn’t take any form of communication with him, no mobile phone. He wanted to do this on his own. This was how he was the whole time he was poorly. His main worries were for my mum, about who would look after her, about her not being stressed or upset because he saw her as fragile. I never heard him say even one thing about his own worries, I never heard him talk about his own fears for his own health. He worried about what would become of his house, because his house was his project. He was slowly taking it entirely off grid and creating a carbon neutral house, effectively. Solar panels, heat pumps, I think something to do with batteries next. He had a quarter acre veg patch, he had a polytunnel, he had a camper van that we now find no one can drive because of all the ‘dad-fixes’ that mean you have to know every quirk and how to address it, as you are driving it. It’s got no power steering. It’s a very old truck with a camper van built into it. My dad never shirked away from any sort of fix or build project, as long as he was interested in it. If he was doing it, he was doing it. Other projects – kitchens, bathrooms, cars – that weren’t as interesting, tended to take a back seat which meant we lived our lives in half finished bathrooms, with toilets that you had to know the knack of flushing. He had an enormous capacity for joy. You could hear his laugh two streets away, you could hear his sneeze two miles away. Everything with my dad was quite loud.
We fretted all day on Tuesday, waiting to hear how the operation had gone, and finally got the phone call late evening to say he was back on the ward, all had gone well. I started to imagine the conversations we’d have when he was well enough to leave ITU and go back to the ward where we could visit. He’d been such an influence on my non fiction book, he’s so much a part of the book, I was excited to tell him about the next piece of research, the next walk or hike I’d taken, the next burial mound I’d found, the next piece of social history. I’d gotten into the habit of popping round to show him stuff on maps, to talk to him about his own history, his own life. The chemo, though gruelling, had allowed him to be in a reduced amount of pain and I’d hoped to take him up to Seamer Beacon, a local landmark that he’d never visited. But he managed to get an infection in his foot two weeks before the operation, which took a lot of resolving with daily antibiotic drips, so we never made it. One thing that I am grateful for is the time that the chemo gave me with my dad, and my mum. Being self employed, it was easiest for me, out of my brother, sister and myself, to move work around and drive them back from appointments in Cottingham, about an hour’s drive away. So when mum couldn’t accompany us I got to sit with my dad for a couple of hours as we drove over the Wolds. We talked about his life a lot, about what he’d seen, about the different jobs, different experiences he’d had. He left school at fifteen and was working full time straight away. My mum and dad were together since he was seventeen, my mum just a bit older. They were married fifty years. I shall treasure those chemo trips. Not just for having that precious time with dad, but for the hours that I spent chatting with mum while we waited. My mum is closest to my sister, they’re very much alike, which I know is going to be a great comfort to her now, but it was nice to sit and talk about books, about her life, about what her hopes were for the future.
On the Wednesday we got a phonemail to say that when they’d brought him round from the induced coma he had been in a lot of pain and they suspected a blocked or twisted bowel, so off he went to theatre again for his second major operation. It was hours. Then a scan showed another problem, something not quite right with the join in the oesophagus and stomach. Back to theatre he went for his third major operation, and when they opened him up again they found the tissue at the site had died. They did an emergency removal of it and he went very quickly from being very poorly indeed to being critical. The surgeons, the consultants, the staff were all fighting for him. He was on dialysis, he was on a ventilator, he was category three intensive care, the highest you can be. We wished and prayed. My brother took my mum up to be with him. But he was deteriorating. We were told the next forty eight hours would be critical, but twenty four hours later he had deteriorated again so we went as a family to see him and sat around his bed telling him he had to come back to feed his fish and his chickens and continue with his projects. We told him to get well, to pull a miracle out of the bag, to come back to us. We spoke to the surgeon who was very open and honest about my dad’s condition. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. The next day, Saturday, another phone call. It was time. We sat with him and said our goodbyes and told him how loved he was by all of us, by his sisters, by his nephews and nieces and friends. Slowly the desperation to say what we needed to say before he died calmed and we were able to then talk over him, to each other, bringing him into the conversation. We sat round his bed and told stories from our childhood about all the crazy adventures we’d had, we reassured him that we would look after mum, each other. He was a man of faith, my dad. My mum read psalm 23 The Lord is My Shepherd to him in that air conditioned room in the ITU, and even I prayed by his side. We held his hand, though it didn’t feel like my dad’s hand. I felt like he was journeying away, and all the time I was in that room I could imagine him nearby, speaking to us “don’t cry honey, I’m going to a better place”. He’d always believed in there being a time for people to die, and that life should be lived to the absolute maximum, and not wasted, that when your time was up, it was up. He would have hated to not partake fully in life. My mum will be comforted by that, I think. The staff knew we’d need a break, and had set up some drinks in a quiet room. It felt like stepping into this space of normality where the sun was shining in and the tea was hot and good. We ate biscuits. Then, fortified, we went back in and prepared for the machines to be turned off. We sat quietly, we watched him slipping away and away. He was gone.
I’ve written two poems about this over the week that we were losing him. I feel like my brain is trying to process his very quick demise. I’ve been thinking about whether it was the right thing to have the operation, to take that risk, worrying that we pushed him into it, worrying that my mum will always wonder what would have happened otherwise, if we’d chosen death by cancer, had turned down the chance the operation offered. But we didn’t make the decision, how could we? No one made a decision for my dad, dad made all his own choices, whether we disagreed or not, and it was him that chose the chance to be a whole person – vital, present, capable of another fifteen years to complete his projects, to have holidays, to build memories. When they tell you the risks in an operation, they are real risks, not just something they have to tell you to tick a box. And this was a very high risk operation. But still, so quick, so hard to align the vital presence of my dad, with the old man who looked so much like my grandad, in the ITU.
When he left us, striding across the car park, he’d removed all his jewellery. The letter he got from the hospital told him to bring nothing but himself. He took them literally and didn’t even take a mobile phone. We had no contact with him at all. I thought at the time how it felt like some sort of religious ceremony, a baptism perhaps; the stripping away of all worldly goods. But actually, it was much more primal than that. Much more like a warrior facing a final challenge. Much more like a man going into the desert alone. Something he knew he had to do himself, a rite of passage. He entered into a place where there were only two outcomes. I don’t see that as losing any sort of fight. His faith gave him two options, not one death and one life. And I have never met a braver person in my life, how brave must you be to make that decision, to take that chance. That was the bravest thing I’ve seen anyone do. He did it for himself and he did it so he could continue to be married to my mum. And he was a warrior, did fight this, with every sinew, he fought to keep the life that he had with my mum. He fought to continue to suck the marrow out of every experience. I like to think of life as a journey, and our job within that life, as we move around it in the vessels; the bodies that we are in, is to experience every part of it, to find joy where you can, to be compassionate, to live a full life. My dad did that. I like to think of him continuing to journey. Journey well, dad, journey well.
Until next time