Thursday, 15 November 2007

Saturday 20th July

Communication is a useful thing: that's pretty much a given, I would have thought. It's amazing how much we communicate when we don't realise it. If not words then subtle ways of expressing understanding, emotions and thoughts, through nuanced expressions and gestures. It's also very notable what happens when communication is blocked or sidelined for whatever reason, when someone is unwilling or unable to express themselves as they previously had done: even if that person was someone of few words in the first place.

Messages, intended or otherwise, still manage to filter through in some form or another, however difficult it might be. Perhaps an analogy with the way that grass, plants and weeds manage to push their way up through concrete and tarmac is pushing it too far, but it's the image that springs to mind.

But right now, as I spotted someone walking along the pavement, I had an urge to open the car door, jump out, and let my clenched fist communicate with his face: such was the effect of the surge of adrenaline that I was experiencing. Going up and enacting violence on a total stranger was never going to happen (not least because I was in a moving car), but it served to illustrate just how fraught I was feeling. Not without good reason.

As I let such thoughts recede from my mind and concentrated on being a good passenger, we turned off the main road and eventually onto a driveway which led to a car park. Here, just adjacent to the main hospital site, was the hospice. My mother and I got out of the car and stood bathed in the brilliant, beautiful sunlight.

It had been easier in many ways since my father had been in hospital, even though that in itself was an indicator that he was one step closer to dying. My mother had been doing everything possible to provide all the care he needed, but he was beyond that stage now. What had really been a relief was that she and I could talk.

My father's outward refusal to accept that anything was wrong (all the while visibly deteriorating: he had become confined to spending all day on the settee, he appeared at times to sink ever deeper into the cushions) had been the most difficult aspect of his illness for me: over the last few months since the word "terminal" had been used after the word "prognosis", I had hoped for some point of access into discussion with him. I needed to talk about this, and I knew I wouldn't find it easy.

Whatever was going on for him though (I'll pause and reflect on that. Whatever was going on for him. A terminal illness was going on for him, that was what was going on. A tumour like a brick. Not like a cauliflower type of thing like your Grandad's was in his lungs, this is solid like a brick, was my Grandmother's delightful turn of phrase), he would not or could not acknowledge it to those around him. Which meant that the weekends I spent at home felt unbearably tense. I wanted him to know I was upset; I wanted him to listen, like I wanted to listen back to whatever he might want to tell me. I just wanted to be able to talk about what was becoming an increasingly huge elephant in the room.

Silence. No point of access. A stone wall. Distance.

I was to think on a number of occasions that if he hadn't been so silent about the pain and discomfort he was suffering this time last year...well it was too late for that now. At one of the chemotherapy sessions, when it was seen that there was little or no effect on the size of the tumour, we were reassured that it "was still early days." At the next session, "there's nothing more that we can do."

So, as his deterioration necessitated his stay in hospital, it meant - among many other things - that when I would arrive for the weekend, me and my mother would talk. We had to - it was a necessity, for both of us - and it was a relief. It really was a glorious summer, we would sit on the bench on the lawn late in the evenings til long after the sun had gone down, having a few drinks and reflecting back on the last few months and how we were coping. The irony was that it was easier to cope now that things were at such an advanced stage.

But after weekends of painful absurdity in which, in front of my father, all conversation was of normal, ordinary, mundane things - thus masking the even more painful reality which he would not acknowledge with us - then it was hardly surprising that we felt some relief in that respect.

It had been thus when I had arrived last night, a Friday night like the last few, sat outside talking and drinking and reflecting. This morning before driving to where he'd been residing the last week or so, the hospice (or "Extreme Retirement Home" I thought with grim humour) we'd had a phone call: he'd had a marked deterioration during the course of the night, it looked like he was in the final stages.

My fist and its desire to connect with a stranger's face. Months of bottled up words and emotions I wanted and needed to share with my dad. However good and helpful it was for my mother and I to be open and empathic with each other, the fact remained that my dad was the one I needed to talk to, however much he - or his illness - had cut him off from such possibilities. Well now there was no choice, events had forced my hand. I knew that if I didn't say anything today, I would never say anything to him again: as we walked into the hospice, I had a sense of absolute certainty that this would be the last time I would ever see him.

He was in a lovely, comfortable room all to himself. The brilliant sunlight shone through the large window with a real intensity. I could hear birds singing outside. There was a big tv in the corner, the golf was on: that's right, the olympics. I'd hardly been aware that they'd started, such was my preoccupation. There was a table; a couple of comfy chairs. I could feel my feet sink slightly into the carpet as I padded through to the side-room where my dad was in bed. All pleasant, normal stuff, the room had a comforting politeness to it. Not so polite that it could mask the smell: a distinctive odour was all-pervasive.

Here was recognition: it felt like a dramatic way of putting it, but here was what I had heard about. The stench of death.

The nurse updated us as we sat down. I paid attention to what she was saying on a perfunctory level, and my understanding of what she said was nothing other than perfunctory. As I sat in the same room (which exuded comfort, politeness and the stench of death) I was forcibly struck by how normal everything was. Mundane, even. Everyday. It was a Saturday afternoon and, as mentioned, the TV was on and the sun was shining brightly through the window. The window was open because it was a glorious hot summer's day. Just because this was the last time I would ever sit in the same room as my dad while he was still alive did not alter the sheer ordinariness of the scene: in an odd way, it intensified it.

No, the drama was in the events, it would not be imbued in these ordinary objects and settings until sheer force of memory made it bleed through into them long after the fact.

"Hello, are you there? We've come to see you. Me and your youngest son. Your wife, and son number two. Are you listening?" She spoke as though addressing a child and I couldn't cope. Something in me shut down temporarily. She held his hand and spoke in this way. His eyes were half closed, I wondered how conscious he was of our presence beneath the layers of pain, the palliative drugs and the cloak of his body's own toxins: he lay there and from time to time shifted restlessly, giving a grimace which bared his teeth. "Nurse...give me an injection....the pain...make me die! No more!"

The golf was still on in the background, the sun shining, lovely summer's day, everything still so ordinary. A deafeningly loud kind of everydayness.

I sat there in near-silence as my mother talked to him. Was he listening? Was any of it filtering through?

What a bland painting up on the wall.

As chance would have it, another relative was on one of the wards on the main hospital site. He'd had a major operation a few days ago. On our way here my mother had mentioned this to me: I read this (correctly) as her saying she would go over to the main site and see him while we were here. Which meant I would have some time alone with my dad. She got up out of her chair by the bed and said she was going to see him. She left the room.

So it was just the two of us now. Well, us and the Olympic golf tournament and the sound of the birds singing their cheerful summer songs through the window. Punctuated by the less cheerful sounds of my father moaning in pain and hoping for a swift end to it all. Not just yet, I thought.

Because if I don't do this now, I'll regret it for the rest of my life.

It's not often you get to be so conscious of a moment like that. Which was why my heart was beating fast and my hands, earlier so firm and clenched tightly and ready to hit someone, were now shaking a little.

I put one hand on the bed, and gingerly took one of my father's hands, which was lying a little awkwardly across his chest. It was clammy, bony and had little of the qualities one expects: it felt almost like a non-hand. An absence of all except the fact of its (for now) continuing existence. Just as the flesh was grey, sallow, lacking, but still there.

I couldn't remember the last time I'd held his hand: probably as a child.

The silence was suddenly deafening: the tv and the birds and all those bloody ordinary mundane things which were so comforting by the fact of their generic, faceless familiarity, now seemed to have retreated far into the distance. I was acutely aware that there was another absence, that of my voice, which really needed to start uttering words if I wasn't going to regret this for ever.

I spoke. My words, faltering as they were at first, were almost shocking to me, I heard them almost as though I were listening in from close by. The more there were of them though, the more I realised I was still me, this was me holding my dying father's hand, looking at him and talking to him.

I told him it must have been difficult these last few months to feel the way he was feeling. I couldn't imagine the pain, the suffering, what it was like to go through what he was going through.

Eyes still half closed. I still didn't know how conscious he was. But he was no longer moaning in pain, just stirring a little from time to time. I wondered, was he listening?

I went on. I managed to keep my voice steady and even, despite my still-racing heart, my shaking hands. Deep, even breaths.

I told him how difficult it had been not to feel able to talk to him about what he was going through, and what it was doing to me as a result. I told him that I needed to talk about it now, and to tell him some things I needed to say because he was my father and I loved him.


I went on some more. I told him I respected him, and I knew that he respected me. I told him I liked how we had always communicated previously: not verbally usually, but in a tacit kind of way. A nod, a glance, a gesture, a few words here and there. Enough to know that we understood each other. I told him I had missed that communication, but that he must have needed to deal with things in his own way.

I talked about many moments during childhood when he had been a strong, comforting presence. I talked about the times when my mother had been concerned about me for different reasons, and he had come over and said a few quiet words of reassurance. I talked about the ways he had influenced and inspired me: his love of music, of photography, his open-mindedness and his support; many more subtle things too.

The words were really flowing now, I talked as much as I felt the need to, all focussed on him and what he meant to me. It seemed as though I was getting back in touch with something in myself, something which had been forcibly suppressed during the unsteady times of the last few months. I embraced this feeling and carried on: not rambling, but evenly and gently.

I thanked him, and told him I was glad that he was my father: again, that I loved and respected him not just for all the things I had mentioned and how much they meant to me, but for the simple fact of who he was. I told him that if it was difficult for him to hear all this, well I needed to tell him: it was really really important to me, and I hoped he respected me for that.

Silence. No grimaces, no moans, no urge to die right now.

Perhaps, I thought, this means he's listening. On some level, this is registering. I needed this to be true.

I told him I was also saying goodbye. I squeezed his hand.

A moment not of silence or ordinary everydayness, but of stillness: something beyond ordinary, and beyond the words I'd just spoken. I held onto his hand like I was holding on to the moment: knowing that it would soon pass, as would so much else. I didn't know how much time passed, such was the stillness: just me and my dad saying goodbye wordlessly.

I'd heard a faint noise: my mother came back in. I wondered if she'd heard me talking and decided to wait outside the door. No matter: I'd just done the most difficult thing I had ever done. I gently laid his hand back to rest on his chest. The last time I'd ever touch it, even if his hand like the rest of him was defined as much now by absence as by what remained. But there was still a human being there. Still alive - just.

I was calm but weary now. As we got up to leave - we'd been here for a couple of hours - I gave him one more glance as he lay in bed in his side-room. The birds still sang; the room just a little cooler now, the light of the sun having moved noticeably further around the wall. The olympics was still on.

Then we left, out into the glorious late-afternoon.

I had spent the last six months fearing his death. Six months in a heightened state of anxiety. Now, I knew, the one thing left for my father to do was to die. It was all he could do.

We got in the car.

I would never set eyes on him again (even though he was in that room just over there). But I had said my thanks, told him exactly what he meant to me, told him I loved him: I had said a proper goodbye. And somehow, all that anxiety, that pent up frustration, all those fears, were starting to recede. I felt I had crossed a barrier.

We drove home, the interior of the car bathed in the still-glorious sunshine.