Dad is ill. And there’s no going back. He’s always been one of the most ebullient, fun and active people I know. The person I’ve always looked up to and tried to emulate but soon all of that life and fun and love will no longer exist apart from in our memories.
At the start of the Summer holidays he seemed distant, forgetful and prone to mental blanks. After I went to Greece I’d hoped he’d be better and sometimes he was but then at others he would sit in silence with a faraway look in his eye which I hadn’t seen before.
In the last week of the holidays – the last week of August – we started to notice other little quirks of behaviour which were outside the norm: while Mum and I talked about my brother, he confused him for my brother in law. Was it his hearing? Was it dementia? And in the afternoon he would sit in his deckchair in the sun outside the conservatory looking at the ground and then look up at me – that intense gaze he’s always had, unflinching but also somehow now unknowing. There was something about those moments that I couldn’t bear and I’d leave the house and run away to the sea.
Incredibly we had arranged a family photo shoot for Wednesday August 28th, the first time we’d ever done something like this. It was a present from us children to him and mum for their Golden Wedding back in April. There we all were – mum and dad, the children, husbands and wives and grandchildren – now sitting in a row with champagne in the conservatory saying cheers to the camera. Then wandering round the garden swinging little G, her face alive or bouncing little B, still too young to comprehend the pathos of the situation. All of us in scenes of family joy, with genuine attachment, but with our minds somewhere else wondering what was going on.
And now here were mum and dad standing close together, holding each other in the vegetable garden, his vegetable garden with the runner beans that were too late because he’d forgotten to plant them until later in the season, and him suddenly looking old and frail and me trying to look away with that feeling like something is caught in my throat and the now familiar heat in the eyes.
It was so lucky that we timed it then to have those photos but I suppose there’s no getting away from that being a reminder of the start of the end.
That same day – weird to think of it now – we had a meeting with mum about their lasting power of attorney but it was also a moment where the 4 of us agreed that it was clear something was wrong and that Dad needed to be checked out.
The following day – Thursday – mum got active and they started a whole round of tests at the GP. One day that week – I can’t remember which – he had been mowing and had fallen over. Was it the Thursday? I think it might have been. Then it happened again the following day when he was unlocking the church.
Friday was the last day of the Summer holidays (or the last day at home before going back to Bristol). It was always a sad day anyway – a reminder of the days of being a schoolboy and having to go away to a boarding school I hated. I was woken up by mum, her climbing the little staircase to the room next to the attic where I’ve slept since I was 7 years old.
She told me calmly that dad had fallen over while trying to get out of bed and he couldn’t get himself up off the floor and she didn’t have the strength to help him up. My father, always strong and unphazed, was lying prostrate next to the bed. ‘Oh J***, this is ridiculous.’ He was genuinely surprised by his inability to get up.
The GP decided that he had to be admitted to hospital and they called an ambulance to take him. My last day of the Summer I watched him walk himself into the back of the ambulance, well dressed and handsome as he always has been, and sit down on the little seat they have behind the driver. I said goodbye and drove back to Bristol in silence.
Not knowing a diagnosis when you know something is wrong is dreadful. Your brain tells you not to think the worst when all along your brain is thinking the worst. And it really couldn’t have been much worse:
I drove straight from school on Thursday evening 5 days after he’d first been admitted and still without a prognosis although we knew it was a brain tumour. Walking through the door I tried to sound chirpy: ‘Hi!’ expecting it to be mum on her own. This would be how it would be some day soon.
Dad was home. That was a surprise. Mum caught me before I walked down the corridor to hug him.
‘They’ve said he can come home but it doesn’t look good. He’ll explain.’
I sat on the sofa in the same place and the same room where we have gathered for almost 40 years: birthdays, Christmas, parties for their friends or ours or just a place to be together to chat or watch TV.
They sat in armchairs one on each side of me and spelled it out between them, clearly worried how I would react.
‘It’s very aggressive.’
‘Treatment is difficult and could be risky.’
‘They say 3-6 months, possibly a year if they can operate.’
There is no noticeable effect on me. The room doesn’t start spinning. The clocks keep ticking. We keep talking as we normally would.
But everything has changed.
This is what countless generations of people who have come before have had to endure. The loss of someone close. It’s so simple, so obvious. It’s everything that I’ve read about or seen on stage or screen but nothing can prepare you for it. Already I see my life up to this point as an innocent, unknowing time. Who was the poet who talked about how we throw away our youth like toffee wrappers? What do we know about life? Nothing. How woefully unprepared we are for this entire misadventure. They don’t tell you these things in school but one day life will let you down and you won’t know how good something is until it’s gone.