It was around 7.30 on a Wednesday morning. My mum woke me up and asked me to go and sit with my dad upstairs while she phoned for an ambulance. I was unsurprised, as he had been poorly for a few days. It had happened every couple of months for the last year or so. He’d get a chest infection, antibiotics wouldn’t work and he’d become so dehydrated he had to be admitted to hospital for IV fluids. The only difference this time was he didn’t have a chest infection.
I quickly got up and went to my parents’ bedroom, sitting down on top of the white duvet with it’s pretty pattern of lilac flowers, next to where my dad lay. I took his hand in my own and said hello, although he didn’t respond. I don’t think I said anything else. I can still hear the sound of his breathing. Each inhalation was a gasp for air, moving his whole upper body. I didn’t hear him exhale and the time between breaths was long and drawn out. It was bright and sunny for the last day in February. The curtains were open and I looked out at the familiar scene. Willow tree just the other side of our garden fence, obscuring the view of the duck pond I went to every day as a small child. Beyond that, the green, covered in molehills and then the woods.
It felt like I’d been waiting forever but it couldn’t have been much more than ten minutes when I heard the front door open and my mum came upstairs followed by two paramedics, a man and a woman. My mum told me to go downstairs to get dressed, so I did, hearing the paramedic saying they needed to intubate him as I left the room. Since the day wasn’t particularly out of the ordinary, I anticipated my mum wanting me to go to school. I decided I wanted to go to the hospital with her. Swapping my red pyjamas for jeans and my favourite pink hoody, I came out of my downstairs bedroom as the paramedics were bringing him down the stairs, expecting to have to defend my decision not to go to school.
She didn’t say a word. Instead we quickly got into the car and drove to the hospital. We parked and went to A&E, telling the lady at reception who we were there for. She popped out of the room and when she came back, instead of asking us to wait in the waiting room, or showing us to the right where patients were being treated, she opened a door to the left and let us in. We were taken to a small room with a blue sofa and a couple of chairs, and a coffee table with a yellowing corded phone on top. There were big pot plants in the corners of the room.
I don’t think we said anything then either. Just sat on the sofa next to each other, waiting. The door opened and an attractive man in dark blue scrubs came in and sat down. He had olive skin and curly black hair. I remember thinking he had nice arms. When he spoke his accent was australian.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you, but Stuart passed away.”
“His heart got into a rhythm that we couldn’t shock it out of…”
I don’t remember the rest. He didn’t know that my dad had signed a DNR anyway, so resuscitation was neither here nor there. He told me, when I visited him in hospital not long after his diagnosis that he’d signed it. He said that if his heart had had enough, that meant his whole body had, and that it would be better to just let it go.
The kind man in blue scrubs left not long after. I had my arm around my mum. I remember thinking I needed to strong for her. Using the phone on the table, she phoned our pastor and his wife, although I don’t remember what she said. Less than twenty four hours before we had been sitting on another sofa, their sofa, and I had told them that I was done. I couldn’t do it anymore. Now it was over.
It, had been a hellish eighteen months.
He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August 2005. I was reading a book called Remembrance at the time. A beautiful but tragic novel set in WW1 that my parents were worried about me reading, as I was crying my way through it the day they had to tell me about his diagnosis. A few weeks after that I sat at the dining table with my sister and wheedled out of her the truth of his diagnosis. As the youngest child, I hadn’t been told the full story out of a desire to protect me and I knew it. He was given three weeks to live.
Two weeks after that, my sister woke me up at about 3am on a Saturday. She told me that our brother had driven to Guildford to get his girlfriend. I understood she was telling me our dad was dying. Her bedroom was the downstairs bedroom at the time, and we’d put dad in there when we brought him home to die a few days previously, as getting him upstairs was not an option. I sat on the floor beside her bed and held his hand for around an hour. Then I went to the lounge next door and curled up on the sofa.
I woke a couple of hours later, to find out he was still alive and an ambulance had been called. My mum and sister said it was like 6 am had come, and he decided he wasn’t going to die. I have often thought it would have been better if he had died that night.
The following week we were told he had been misdiagnosed and while the prognosis was still that he would die, the doctors were unable to give us a time frame. He was transferred to the Royal Marsden where specialists could see him more easily, although even they had never seen his type of cancer before. If I remember right, he signed the DNR while he was in there. My dad, the man I grew up with, never came out.
When we brought him home, just before Christmas, my larger than life dad had shrivelled into a hunched over old man. His loud, controversial and very funny personality was replaced by that of a hormonal teen. One minute he’d shout at you, the next he’d be in tears, expecting you to comfort him.
Dealing with his tantrums and counting out vast quantities of tablets for him became part of my daily life, slotted in between trying to concentrate on coursework and hanging out with friends. After a month or two, very few people still asked how he was, fewer still visited him. And so it went on, until that Wednesday morning ten years ago today, when it all came to an end.
I stayed in shock for a good six months after. The prognosis had always been that he would die, but I believed (and still do) in a God who heals, and I was sure he would heal him. After shock I dived into a grief so deep it took over my life, although you may not have known it to see me. I desperately wished I had inherited more of his traits. I wanted to know his ability to stretch out jokes, the way he was unafraid to challenge beliefs I was taught as fact, his dreams of a B&B in Provence and his love of art would not disappear with him.
For such a long time I felt defined by my grief. When meeting new people I had to repress the urge to say “Hi I’m Jen and my dad is dead.” But four years after his death I was on my discipleship course, and received some major ministry. Over the months that followed, it felt like I was starting to see my life in colour, not realising that I had been seeing it through a black and white lens. I realised I had been blaming myself for something that could never have been my fault.
A friend told me that her friend, who’d also lost her dad, said time was a great healer. I would look ahead to when ten years would have passed and promise myself I would feel much better.
I do. The last month or so has brought with it a fresh wave of grief, but I am far better equipped to face it now. I have experienced greater pain in the years that followed and I have lived. I have thrived. I have a God who will walk through every emotion and feel every hurt with me. He heals, he restores, he makes whole.
I still miss him, so much, and expect to for the rest of my life. Then, one day, I’ll find him in heaven and he’ll tell me a joke and I’ll sing him a song and we can catch up on everything he missed.
NB. My brother sent me this photo a few weeks ago. It must have been taken when he was in the Marsden. He has lost weight and his hair is fluffy and thinning out, but he still looks like my dad. The cuddly toy duck is one of mine called Sunshine. I gave him to my dad to keep in hospital with him as a cheery reminder of me. I still have it.